Finding answers to drug resistance in ovarian cancer
Since today is World Ovarian Cancer Day (May 8), it gave us chance to look back at some of the work we are funding to help women with ovarian cancer.
Over 4,000 women die from ovarian cancer in the UK each year alone, and unfortunately, many women are not diagnosed until the cancer has already spread. This means survival rates can be low compared to other common cancers.
How we’re helping
We currently have a number of ovarian cancer projects which you can search through here. Each of these projects has the ultimate aim of improving the lives of women with ovarian cancer.
Projects like Professor Gillian Elliott’s at the University of Surrey. Her team are engineering special forms of the cold-sore virus to destroy cancer cells.
And Dr Patrick Caswell at the University of Manchester, who is targeting molecular hooks to stop the spread of ovarian cancer. Once ovarian cancer has spread, it is much harder to treat successfully.
We’ve already made a difference
And the research is already paying off. Australian researchers have used Worldwide Cancer Research funding to discover genetic changes that can allow ovarian tumours to escape treatment.
For many women with ovarian cancer, chemotherapy is usually effective at the start of treatment, but the disease eventually returns and gradually stops responding.
To find out more about why this might be, Professor David Bowtell, Head of the Cancer Genomics Program at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, Melbourne, studied samples from women with the most common form of ovarian cancer, high grade serous cancer. Professor Bowtell explains:
We were interested in identifying the molecular changes that occurred in a tumour between the time when a woman was first treated and when the tumour recurred and had become resistant to chemotherapy.
The team assembled a large bank of tumour samples, donated by women with ovarian cancer before and after their cancer became resistant. By sequencing all the genes in the ‘before’ and after’ samples they produced a complete genetic landscape of each tumour and how it changed after treatment.
The researchers were surprised by the amount of genetic variation between different tumours even before treatment had started, and by how much the tumours changed after treatment. This helps explain why it has been difficult to make progress in treating ovarian cancer. Dr Dale Garsed, who worked on the study, told us they spotted some particularly important genetic changes:
“We mapped mutations associated with DNA repair, finding about half the cancers had defects in a very accurate form of DNA repair. The genes of these tumours were particularly damaged.”
Even though the grant ended in 2014, the research didn’t stop there. This unique genetic database is now contributing to the development of a clinical trial in ovarian cancer patients. The trial will try to improve the treatment of ovarian cancer by choosing treatments based on the specific genetics of each woman’s tumour.
“I think the work we are doing is important,” says Professor Bowtell, “it will have an impact on the lives of women with ovarian cancer, understanding how better to treat them when the cancer comes back. Without your support, that research would not have happened.”