Ovarian cancer research gets personal to save lives
Researchers hope new ways of investigating the disease known as a ‘silent killer’ will improve treatments and survival rates.
More targeted treatment
Ovarian cancer has one of the lowest survival rates of any cancer in Australia, and it has scarcely budged in decades. A diagnosis of ovarian cancer can be devastating: only 46 per cent of patients will be alive five years later.
Two UTS Science researchers specialising in women’s health, Professor Deborah Marsh and Dr Lana McClements, are working to change those numbers and say they are encouraged by new funding for innovative research and potential new therapies in the clinical trial pipeline.
Professor Marsh is a chief investigator on a recently announced $3.75 million grant from Cancer Council NSW that will boost the research effort around personalised ovarian cancer treatment for Australian women.
She joins a large team of experts, led by Professor Anna DeFazio from the University of Sydney, working towards treatments based on the individual characteristics of a patient’s tumour.
This research is vital because it focuses on analysing the molecular profiles of individual tumours so we can triage women to better treatments.
Professor Deborah Marsh
School of Life Sciences, UTS
“Unlike for other women’s cancers, such as breast and cervical cancer, population screening for ovarian cancer is unlikely in the near future, and the many different subtypes of this disease mean that new treatments won’t work for everyone,” Professor Marsh says.
Hello, my name is Deborah Marsh. I'm the discipline leader of medical science in the School of Life Sciences at UTS and also run my research laboratory, the Translational Oncology Group. February is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month and February 26 is Teal Ribbon Day. A day that where we especially think about ovarian cancer. This year, over 15 hundred Australian women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and only one in two or less than one in two of these women will be alive five years post this diagnosis.
So these women are our mums, our grandmothers, our sisters, cousins, aunts, nieces and our friends. And it predominantly affects older women. But young women can also be diagnosed and die of ovarian cancer. Some of the reasons for this is that there is no screening test for ovarian cancer, unlike cervical or breast cancer, where there's population screening tests. This just does not exist for ovarian cancer. Another major reason is that a lot of the symptoms are quite nondescript, so women may experience bloating or feeling full after eating or lower abdominal pain.
These are symptoms many women are used to dealing with in their lives, so they may pass them off as not being something relevant. If you're interested in knowing more about the symptoms of ovarian cancer, ovarian cancer Australia, just go to their website. They have some really good information. So there's growing research activity at UTS to better understand and treat ovarian cancer. In my own laboratory, we're focusing on genetic and epigenetic drivers of ovarian cancer. We're also developing 3D Bioprinting, where we're working with some of the engineers at UTS to work out how we can actually print these ovarian cancer cells in what we call a bio and corum matrix to better mimic what's going on in a woman's body.
And in this way, we can then challenge these cultures that we develop to see what drugs these women are best going to respond to. So in this way, developing a platform for personalised medicine. So we're quite excited about this and we've had some seed funding from Sphere and also the faculty of Engineering. And we're excited to be part of this very large program, translational program grant from the Cancer Council New South Wales, led by Professor Anna DeFazio at Westmead Hospital, where we're going to be developing this further and hopefully improving the outcomes for women with ovarian cancer.
So some of the other researchers at UTS working on ovarian cancer are doctors Lana McVlements and Evelyn Diplazes, also Professor Stella Valenzuela and Associate Professor Willa Huston. So we're collaborating with a lot of these investigators looking at the causes of ovarian cancer, looking for markers off of ovarian cancer. And Naama has been part of an exciting phase one clinical trial looking at better therapies for ovarian cancer. So before the month of February is over, have a think about ovarian cancer.
Possibly for yourself, definitely for the women you love.
“This research is vital because it focuses on analysing the molecular profiles of individual tumours so we can triage women to better treatments.”
Professor Marsh leads the translational oncology group in the UTS School of Life Sciences, and will combine her 20 years of experience and clinical connections in researching female cancers with UTS expertise in 3D printing to better mimic a human environment in the laboratory.
This research has already been given a head start with seed funding from the Sydney Partnership for Health, Education, Research and Enterprise (SPHERE) and the UTS Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology.
Using 3D technology
“UTS has incredible skills and expertise across faculties, especially in 3D printing technology. Using patient tumour samples, we hope to be able to bio-print cancer cells in 3D, then challenge them with different drugs to predict how a real tumour might respond to specific therapies,” she says.
“If successful we’ll be able to develop a low-risk, and low-cost, platform for predicting patient response to personalised medicine,” she says.
Technology is also front of mind for Dr Lana McClements who says that with “advanced technology we can interrogate biology better” in a way that will help the move to using personalised human models in the lab.
“This has the potential to expedite drug discovery,” she says.
Dr McClements says promising new results, extending from her PhD research at Queen’s University Belfast with Professor Tracy Robson, around therapeutic peptides AD-01/ALM201, could provide a valuable new therapy for ovarian cancer.
“These new therapeutic peptides were developed based on the novel protein FKBPL, which is capable of cutting out blood vessels around the tumour and inhibiting stem cells within tumours, therefore preventing its growth,” Dr McClements says.
“A Phase 1 Dose-escalations clinical trial in advanced ovarian cancer and other solid tumours has been completed demonstrating a very good safety profile.”
With no established way to detect ovarian cancer early, the researchers are encouraging women to know the general risk factors for the disease, and to support funding for ovarian cancer research, for example through Teal Ribbon Day.