Ovarian cancer breakthrough at HMRI offers hope of early detection.

Research: Hopes of finding an early-warning signal for ovarian cancer have been boosted by a protein discovery at the Hunter Medical Research Institute.
Research: Hopes of finding an early-warning signal for ovarian cancer have been boosted by a protein discovery at the Hunter Medical Research Institute.

HUNTER researchers have discovered an early-warning signal for ovarian cancer they believe could have a “significant” bearing on survival rates.

In what has been described as a “bright light in an otherwise dim area” of early detection, research teams from the University of Newcastle and Hunter New England Health have discovered a protein that is secreted by the earliest lesions involved in the disease.

Lead researcher Pradeep Tanwar, from the University of Newcastle, said they had essentially figured out how the lesions formed, and what the switch was.

“The lesions are so small they can’t be seen with MRI, ultrasound or a camera until it’s too late,” Dr Tanwar said. “But we now have a good sketch of the thief, which will help us to catch it.” 

Dr Tanwar believes the discovery could have a significant bearing on survival rates.

“The majority of women with ovarian cancer are diagnosed with advanced disease because the symptoms often echo more common ailments such as stomach bloating and changes in bowel movements,” Dr Tanwar said. “It’s difficult for women to pinpoint the exact symptoms and also challenging for GPs to diagnose.”

Those diagnosed with Stage 1 ovarian cancer had a 90 per cent survival rate, compared with 44 per cent overall for later stages. At Stage 4, one in 10 women survive beyond five years.

A collaborator from Curtin University in Perth, Professor Arun Dharmarajan, has developed an inhibitor for the responsible “Wnt” proteins that may stop the lesions from developing further.

“Our study is now looking at detecting these proteins in fluid and cells collected during a conventional pap smear or in a separate, simple procedure,” Dr Tanwar said.

Calvary Mater Newcastle medical oncologist Dr Janine Lombard said the research was a bright light in an otherwise dim area of early detection.

“Despite decades of research we still have no way of effectively screening for this cancer, even in women with BRCA1 or 2 gene faults who have a much higher risk of this cancer than the general population of women,” Dr Lombard said.

“It’s very exciting to see research from Dr Tanwar’s group in the Hunter potentially identifying a new way forward in this important area.”