Townsville Bulletin

New test in fight to beat ovarian cancer


SAMPLES taken from ovarian cancer patients in Australia have helped propel a promising new blood test vying to be the first way to detect the deadly cancer in its earliest stages.

The hope of turning around ovarian cancer’s tragic statistics – that less than a third of women diagnosed in the later stages of the disease will still be alive five years on – lies in finding the tumour early so it can be surgically removed before spreading further.

And while there is no screening test, about 90 per cent of ovarian cancers are curable if found early.

Researcher­s from Queensland’s Griffith University and the University of Adelaide have developed a reliable way of screening for a sugar molecule that is only produced by tumour cells, not by healthy cells.

Lead researcher Professor Michael Jennings said they designed a protein that could bind to and detect this sugar – called Neu5gc – in the bloodstrea­m.

They tested their approach in samples from 47 Victorian ovarian cancer patients and 22 cancer-free adults.

“We’re very surprised this seems to be universall­y elevated at all stages of ovarian cancer, and particular­ly in early stages, but not in cancerfree healthy women,” Prof Jennings said.

“I think there is real promise that further research to improve the test may yield something that could be used potentiall­y in a screening program.

“Currently there is no way to screen for ovarian cancer that is effective, unfortunat­ely.”

The research has been made possible through the use of tumour cells from the Melbourne-based Victorian Cancer Biobank, one of the largest cancer biobanks in the world.

It has received $6m from the state government to continue its work over the next three years in collecting biospecime­ns of cancer tissue. The funding will also be used to gather blood and clinical data for research studies and for clinical trials to improve cancer outcomes.

Since it was set up 15 years ago, the biobank has collected more than 450,000 biospecime­ns – such as tissue, blood and DNA from patients – and has supported more than 300 research projects.

Prof Jennings said drawing on further samples from the biobank, they were now investigat­ing whether this blood test could also be useful to diagnose cancers in the pancreas, lungs and bowel.

“To ask these questions in the past, you may have had to set up clinical collaborat­ion and get funding just to do the collection of samples, which would cost hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said.

“The biobank is a terrific resource as it lets us pivot quickly into a new field.”

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