Researchers from the Oxford University have identified a protein that can help detect the earliest signs of ovarian cancer which begins in the female organs that produce eggs (ovaries) and is usually difficult to diagnose because it grows virtually unseen into the abdominal cavity. They have also identified an enzyme that makes ovarian cancer more deadly. Ovarian cancer is the fifth most common cancer for women in the UK, with about 7,100 new cases each year.
If detected early enough, the deadly cancer in the ovaries responds well to chemotherapy. However, once it spreads, it becomes resistant to chemotherapy and is far more likely to kill, the researchers said.
‘The level of protein SOX2 are higher in people who have ovarian cancer and in those who are at a risk of developing cancer. Early detection of cancer helps in providing faster treatment and improves the odds of survival for patients.’
Ovarian cancer can be undetectable for up to four years and only a third of people with the cancer get an early diagnosis, said Ahmed Ahmed, Professor at the Oxford University. The symptoms can be difficult to recognise, particularly in its early stages, as they are often the same as symptoms of other less serious conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS).
The new findings which were published in two journals, could not only help detect cancers early, but in some cases would enable doctors to detect a tumour before it becomes cancerous.
In their first paper, published in the online journal EBioMedicine
, researchers showed that levels of a protein called SOX2 are much higher in the fallopian tubes of people with ovarian cancer. It is also prevalent in some people who are at high risk of developing ovarian cancer, such as those with inherited mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes.
Early treatment hugely improves the odds for patients, so early detection is essential. However, there is still a lot of work to be done because detecting SOX2 in the fallopian tubes is not an easy task.
In their second paper, published in the journal Cancer Cel
, the team identified an enzyme that enables ovarian cancer to spread. When ovarian cancer spreads, it usually does so to the omentum, an apron of fatty tissue covering the small intestine. This can cause death by malnutrition, as the growing cancer obstructs the intestines.
"The omentum is rich in adipocytes, fat cells, and previous research found that the free fatty acids produced by these cells increase the spread of cancer," Professor Ahmed explained.
The findings show that ovarian cancer could only proliferate in the presence of an enzyme called SIK2, which has a role in burning fat to produce energy that is needed by the cancer cells to survive in the omentum.
SIK2 levels were higher in secondary tumours in the omentum than in related primary tumours. A series of experiments confirmed that SIK2 not only played a key role in growing ovarian tumours, but in the metastasis that spreads them to the omentum.
Further experiments revealed the processes, known to medical researchers as pathways
, involving SIK2 that support the development and spread of ovarian cancer. SIK2 is an important target for future treatments because it provides cancer cells with energy and also drives their increase in number.
The experiments showed that suppressing SIK2 disrupted these pathways, which in the human body would reduce the possibility of cancer cells spreading and remission.