Stanford Pursues New Research to Understand Spread and Resistance of Aggressive Ovarian Cancer

Stanford Pursues New Research to Understand Spread and Resistance of Aggressive Ovarian Cancer

A team led by researchers at Stanford University will test an approach combining new materials and imaging technologies to provide a deeper understanding of how high-grade serous ovarian cancer develops.

The condition is the most common type of ovarian cancer and the hardest to treat. It is the leading cause of death among gynecologic cancers.

The project is led by Erinn Rankin and Oliver Dorigo, assistant professors of obstetrics and gynecology, and Sarah Heilshorn, an associate professor of materials science and engineering.

Two major complications happen with high-grade serous ovarian cancer: It is frequently diagnosed at a stage where it already has spread to other organs; and in about 80% of the cases, the tumor quickly gains resistance to follow-up drugs used after a prior surgery or chemotherapy treatment.

No one knows why the latter happens. “We’ve done decades of research on chemoresistance in ovarian cancer, and none of that research has actually led to anything clinically useful,” Rankin said in a Stanford News story written by Nathan Collins.

Rather than studying the tumors alone, scientists will examine how cancer interacts with neighboring tissues, down to the scale of individual cells and molecules. Many studies have suggested that such interaction is the key to understanding why cancers spread (metastasize) and gain resistance to drugs.

The team will use a specialized microscope to examine tissue samples from women with high-grade serous ovarian cancer. They will watch cancer cells as they grow and interact with different human tissue-like materials. These are biogels, or materials that mimic biological tissues, which can be tuned to study certain properties that affect cell growth (e.g. tissue stiffness).

It is hoped that the knowledge gained by this approach will cast light on how this cancer spreads and gains resistance to drugs, and may help in finding better ways to fight it.

This research is at its beginning. It is an example of basic research, which will focus on understanding how the cancer develops from a cellular and molecular point of view. This research may provide important clues to help scientists find better treatments. However, it will still take several preclinical and clinical studies from the point of basic research to get to that stage.

Meanwhile, the team is motivated for the discoveries to emerge. “We’re here with this collaborative group, and we’re trying to understand ovarian cancer progression and resistance to find new therapies,” Rankin said. “We’re really excited about it.”