Research by a Cambridge doctor into a new blood test for ovarian cancer could save lives by detecting the disease at a much earlier stage, it has been claimed.
Work by Dr Liz Moore, who works in the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, shows how Cambridge is leading the way in trying to improve the early detection of one of the most common types of cancer in women.
Liz claims the blood test for ovarian cancer that is currently used can give false results, meaning some women have unnecessary surgery – and can also miss signs of cancer in the blood.
Liz has shared her research as the UK marks Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month this March. According to the charity Target Ovarian Cancer, 11 women die in the UK every day from ovarian cancer.
Awareness of ovarian cancer is low, both among women and GPs, with two thirds of women only diagnosed once the cancer has spread.
Liz told the News: “At the moment, there are some issues with the main tests used to diagnose ovarian cancer.
“If women go to see their GP with symptoms of ovarian cancer, they have a blood test to look for the CA125 protein.
“Sometimes this protein isnt found in women who have the earlier stages of ovarian cancer.
“It can also be found in a number of conditions that are not ovarian cancer – sometimes even when women are going through their menstrual cycle.
“This means some women are having further investigations that they dont need, because they havent got ovarian cancer.”
Liz said her hope is to develop a new blood test that can be used with the CA125 test to try and detect the earlier stages of ovarian cancer.
She added: “This will mean women who dont have ovarian cancer arent going in for further unnecessary investigations and seeing specialist doctors when they dont need that.
“Its a test where we would be looking for any tumour DNA in the blood. We need tests that are accurate in identifying small levels of tumour DNA though – thats the challenge.
“We have shown we can detect tumour DNA in women who have relapsed from ovarian cancer – its not so easy otherwise.”
Liz is also a gynaecologist who works with ovarian cancer patients, and it was this experience in the clinic of seeing late stage diagnosis that led to her research.
What do I need to know about ovarian cancer?
Ovarian cancer, or cancer of the ovaries, is one of the most common types of cancer in women – according to the NHS.
The ovaries are a pair of small organs located low in the tummy that are connected to the womb and store a woman's supply of eggs.
Ovarian cancer mainly affects women who have been through the menopause (usually over the age of 50), but it can sometimes affect younger women.
Common symptoms of ovarian cancer include:
- feeling constantly bloated
- a swollen tummy
- discomfort in your tummy or pelvic area
- feeling full quickly when eating
- needing to pee more often than normal
The symptoms aren't always easy to recognise because they're similar to those of some more common conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Read more about the symptoms of ovarian cancer.
Around 7,300 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the UK each year. This makes ovarian cancer the 6th most common cancer in women – according to Cancer Research UK.
Liz added: “My project is looking to develop new diagnostic biomarkers for ovarian cancer.
“At the moment, most women who have ovarian cancer are diagnosed when they are at an advanced stage of that cancer. This has a huge impact on mortality rates.
“Most women who are diagnosed in the advanced stages of having ovarian cancer die from the disease – the five year survival rate sits at less than 20 per cent.
“Where ovarian cancer is diagnosed in women at an earlier stage, that same survival rate goes up to 90 per cent.
“Were aiming to diagnose ovarian cancer at an earlier stage by means of a different blood test – and by doing this were hoping to be able to save lives.”
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Liz said there is still a lot of work to be done and it is a long way off before the blood test will be used in standard practice – but it is hoped that GPs will be able to use the test as routine.
Her blood test research is funded by Cancer Research UK, Target Ovarian Cancer and the Medical Research Council.
She added: “We have been developing some methods that look promising – but we need to make sure we can accurately distinguish between women who have ovarian cancer, and women who have a separate gynaecological condition that is not cancer.
“In the next two years at Addenbrooke's, I also hope to start doing genome testing of patients with ovarian cancer, this would help to improve treatment.”