In the U.S., ovarian cancer ranks fifth in cancer deaths among women, accounting for more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system.
- An estimated 21,410 new cases of ovarian cancer will be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2021, with 13,770 deaths expected to result from the diagnosis.
- While all women are at risk of ovarian cancer, the overall lifetime risk of developing the disease is 1 in 78.
- The estimated five-year survival rate for patients whose ovarian cancer is detected early is about 93%. However, only 16% of women are diagnosed at the early stages.
- Ovarian cancer can be difficult to diagnose because initial symptoms are similar to gastrointestinal illness and indigestion. Women who experience symptoms daily for more than a few weeks should seek prompt medical evaluation.
Source: American Cancer Society’s Cancer Facts & Figures 2021 and the Society’s website
Signs and Symptoms
A symptom is a change in the body that a person can see and/or feel. A sign is a change that the doctor sees during an examination or on a laboratory test result. If you have any of the symptoms below, it does not mean you have cancer but you should see your doctor or health care professional so that the cause can be found and treated, if needed.
- Pelvic or abdominal (belly) pain
- Trouble eating or feeling full quickly
- Urinary symptoms such as urgency (always feeling like you have to go) or frequency (having to go often)
- Fatigue (extreme tiredness)
- Upset stomach
- Back pain
- Pain during sex
- Changes in a woman’s period, such as heavier bleeding than normal or irregular bleeding
- Abdominal (belly) swelling with weight loss
Source: American Cancer Society’s website
Ovarian Cancer Research
In addition to specific projects listed below, genomics research is helping us attack ovarian cancer – and all types of cancer. NFCR has distinguished itself from other organizations by emphasizing long-term, transformative research and working to move people toward cancer genomics.
The diagnosis of metastatic or as it is sometimes called, advanced cancer, is devastating to patients and their loved ones. Dr. Danny Welch and his team have identified genetic changes that could predict whether or not patients will develop metastasis. This exciting research is ongoing and under close observation. At least some of the genetic changes occur in mitochondria – where cells convert nutrients into energy. Research may lead to a simple blood test and analysis of mitochondrial DNA. Test results may guide doctors to treat those patients susceptible to metastasis and may need more aggressive treatment, or save low-risk patients from the harsh side effects of treatments.
Dr. Welch’s team has also discovered eight ‘metastasis suppressor genes’. These genes can be turned off in cancer cells, allowing various stages of metastasis to proceed. BRMS1 gene regulates other genes to suppress metastasis. BRMS1 also makes metastatic cells remain dormant or in a ‘sleep mode’. KISS1 gene suppresses cells from forming a new metastatic site. These genes, when turned on, suppress ovarian and breast cancer, melanoma and other cancer types. The ultimate research goal is to develop anti-metastasis therapeutics that mimic the ‘lost genes’ and arrest metastasis.
Dr. Wei Zhang is a leader of precision oncology, using NFCR support since 2006 to characterize underlying genetic mechanisms responsible for cancer growth and progression – the drivers of cancer. His research addresses the variability in cellular properties, within and across cancer types, which often leads to treatment resistance and poor survival in patients. Dr. Zhang conducts important research studies to advance Precision Oncology with the ultimate goal of maximizing outcomes for patients with ovarian cancer and other malignancies.
Dr. Susan Horwitz’s work has been instrumental in the development of Taxol®, a natural product drug used to treat over 1.5 million ovarian, breast, lung and pancreatic cancer patients. Dr. Horwitz collaborated with organic chemist Dr. Amos B. Smith III and developed other natural products to overcome resistance to Taxol that patient may experience. They synthesized analogues of discodermolide, a natural product from a Caribbean Sea sponge that works similar to Taxol. In ovarian cancer models, the lead compounds showed promising results in their ability to kill cancer cells with reduced toxicity and could potentially develop into a new treatment for ovarian cancer patients.
Dr. Robert Bast, who received NFCR funding for 18 years, is best known for developing the OC125 (CA125) monoclonal antibody in 1981 that led to the production of the CA125 radioimmunoassay – the first useful biomarker for monitoring the course of patients with epithelial ovarian cancer. Since 20% of ovarian cancers do not make the CA125 protein, Dr. Bast and his team have been evaluating other biomarkers to complement CA125 as an early detection blood test. A panel of biomarkers would detect all of the cases early and reduce the poor outcome that most patients experience due to diagnosis after the cancer has spread. Other ways for early detection include Dr. Bast’s “two-step” approach using CA125 and sonography– which results from clinical trials show it effectively reduces fatalities by 20%.
Dr. Harold F. Dvorak, who received NFCR funding for over 30 years, discovered that tumor cells secrete a vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) and this seminal discovery provided the molecular basis for the field of angiogenesis (meaning “blood vessel formation”). Angiogenesis makes it possible for tumors to grow and spread, and Dr. Dvorak’s discovery helped pave the way for research on anti-angiogenesis treatments that can halt and even reverse tumor growth. In 2004, the first VEGF-targeting anti-angiogenic drug Avastin® was approved by the FDA for the treatment of colorectal cancer, and later, for the treatment of non-small cell lung cancer, renal cell carcinoma, the aggressive brain cancer glioblastoma (GBM) and certain types of cervical and ovarian cancers. Specifically, Avastin is approved for stage III and IV epithelial ovarian, fallopian tube, or primary peritoneal cancer in combination with carboplatin and paclitaxel chemotherapy after surgery.