A team at Griffith University’s Institute for Glycomics in Australia has received $300,000 in funding from The Bourne Foundation, as well as a further funding pledge from Tour de Cure, to advance research into the development of blood tests for the early diagnosis of ovarian cancer.
“Despite decades of research, there is currently no easily accessible, non-invasive and reliable early detection test to diagnose ovarian cancer, which leads to poor survivability rates,” Michael Jennings, PhD, a Griffith University professor who will work on the project, said in a press release.
Cancers are easiest to treat when they are small and contained to a single location; in such instances, a tumor often can be removed completely via surgery. However, many people with ovarian cancer are not diagnosed until relatively late in the disease, when the tumor is comparatively large and may have spread to multiple locations in the body. Late diagnosis makes treatment more difficult, ultimately resulting in worse outcomes.
“With no substantial improvement in ovarian cancer survival rates over the past two decades, the key to ovarian cancer survival lies in the development of better diagnostic methods,” Jennings said. “If diagnosed early, over 90% of ovarian cancer patients could be cured. [Tumors] that are detected early before they have had a chance to spread can be completely removed by surgery, effectively curing the patient.”
Blood tests are an attractive avenue for detection, because blood can be collected without causing a lot of strain to the patient, and blood tests are relatively easy to incorporate into existing clinical routines. The intent of the new project is to identify biological markers – specifically proteins – that could be used in blood tests to diagnose ovarian cancer.
The project builds on previous research, which indicated that people with ovarian cancer often have elevated amounts of N-glycolylneuraminic acid (Neu5Gc) in their blood. Neu5Gc is a type of sugar molecule that gets attached to proteins (a process called glycosylation). In general, healthy cells do not add Neu5Gc to their proteins, but some cancer cells do, which is why Neu5Gc is seen as a potential cancer marker.
The specific aim of the project is to figure out the identity of the exact proteins that Neu5Gc is attached to in people with ovarian cancer. This will be accomplished using advanced mass spectrometry technology.
“Identification of these ovarian cancer-associated proteins that carry the Neu5Gc sugar we are detecting has the potential to enable the development of clinically useful early-stage screening and monitoring tests for ovarian cancer, which is the primary aim of our project,” said Lucy Shewell, PhD, Griffith professor and project researcher.
“This test may be a useful tool for early cancer diagnosis, as well as a tool for monitoring treatment and disease,” Shewell said.
The new funding is expected to speed the development of the project: “Thanks to this generous support from philanthropy, we will now be able to fast-track this important research,” Jennings said.
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