U of G Scientists Find Way of Detecting Early Stages of Ovarian Cancer

January 11, 2008 - News Release

University of Guelph researchers have found a way to detect deadly ovarian cancer in its early stages, a breakthrough that could save thousands of women's lives annually.

Biomedical science professor Jim Petrik and his colleagues have discovered a protein expressed by ovarian cancer cells that may act as an identifying marker at the onset of the disease.

“Finding a marker that can help in detecting ovarian cancer in the early stages is probably the most important component of beating this disease,” said Petrik, who worked on the project with Prof. Roger Moorehead and PhD student Jim Greenaway. “It’s a very treatable disease if you can catch it in time.”

Ovarian cancer is the most lethal gynaecological cancer, afflicting some 2,300 Canadian women annually. Women can have the disease for years without knowing because the symptoms, which include nausea, bloating and abdominal pain, are vague and can be attributed to a number of ailments, Petrik said.

This is why ovarian cancer often goes undetected until it’s well advanced and the odds of survival are poor, he said.

“It’s called the silent killer because it really does sneak up on you.”

The protein identified by Petrik and his colleagues is expressed almost immediately after the cancer cells interact with the ovary. Their research is to be published in Gynecologic Oncology, one of the world’s leading cancer journals, and was recently published online on the ScienceDirect website.

The research team made this discovery after developing a way of injecting cancer cells directly on to the surface of the ovaries in mice. In previous studies, researchers had simply injected the cancer cells into the abdominal cavity of mice, which Petrik said is not a true representation of the disease.

“The interaction between the tumour cells and the ovary is a very important component of the progression of the disease,” he said.

They found that when the cancer cells were placed on the ovary, they became more aggressive than the cancer cells injected into the abdominal cavity. And the change in protein expressed as a result of the interaction between the cancer cells and the ovary appeared to be causing the cells to multiply at a more rapid speed, said Petrik.

“Now that we know these cells have a unique signature and express different proteins once they react with the ovary, we can begin to develop an early-detection test to look for these markers.”

The next step is developing a screening test, which he said could be as simple as a blood test.

Petrik and Moorehead received $500,000 from the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research in 2005 to study ovarian cancer.

In addition to discovering a biomarker for ovarian cancer, the duo is researching a possible treatment that can be used in combination with early detection. The treatment involves developing anti-angiogenic drugs that can cut off the blood supply to the ovarian tumour.

“As tumours develop, they have to recruit a blood supply,” said Petrik. “We are looking at molecules that inhibit the formation of new blood cells, which will inhibit the development of the tumour.”

Prof. Jim Petrik
Department of Biomedical Science
519-824-4120, Ext. 54921

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, 519-824-4120, Ext. 53338, l.hunt@exec.uoguelph.ca or Deirdre Healey, Ext. 56982, d.healey@exec.uoguelph.ca

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