tampabay.com

Moffitt wins grant to study ovarian cancer

By ALISA ULFERTS
Published April 4, 2007


The early signs of ovarian cancer can be dangerously vague: bloating, abdominal heaviness, weight loss and fatigue.

Because of this, 75 percent of ovarian cancer cases are diagnosed at a late stage. Only 50 percent of those women will be alive and cancer-free five years after diagnosis; ovarian cancer has the highest mortality rate of any cancer specific to women.

Researchers at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute hope to improve those odds.

The institute has been awarded a five-year, $7.3-million grant to identify genetic risk factors for ovarian cancer, the fifth leading cause of cancer death.

Researchers at Moffitt hope the grant, from the National Cancer Institute, will help them develop better treatment and prevention protocols.

Scientists already know, for example, that women with the so-called breast cancer genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2, have an increased chance of getting ovarian cancer, too. But women with that particular inherited vulnerability make up only 12 percent to 15 percent of all ovarian cancers, Moffitt researchers say.

Moffitt scientists believe that a variety of more subtle genetic variants, combined with lifestyle, are responsible for a greater percentage of cases, and it's those variants and habits they hope to identify.

"In our previous work we have had to rely upon incomplete knowledge of the biology of ovarian cancer to identify 'candidate genes' as potential risk factors," said Thomas Sellers, the principal investigator on the grant and director of the Moffitt Research Institute. "This novel approach overcomes the limitation of previous strategies and will hopefully reveal targets we could have never imagined to be important."

Sellers and other researchers will be taking 8,000 DNA samples - half of them from women with cancer and half without - collected as part of several ongoing studies in North America and analyzing them for genetic similarities, said Dr. Rebecca Sutphen, study co-investigator.

The first phase of the study will map the DNA of women who have ovarian cancer and who also had a relative with the cancer, Sutphen said.

Genetics likely played a significant role for those women, and so researchers want to study those women's DNA first to identify the areas where ovarian cancer genes are most likely to be found.

"That will tell us where the hot spots are," Sutphen said.

Researchers aim to identify specific genes within those areas that may indicate susceptibility to ovarian cancer, using the DNA samples both from ovarian cancer patients who had relatives with the disease and woman with the cancer who didn't.

The goal, Sutphen said, is to help target screening for women with elevated risk for the disease, as well as understand better how the cancer develops so therapies can be improved.

Generally, ovarian cancer is detected through regular pelvic exams.

Blood tests, ultrasound or a laparoscopy may be used if cancer is suspected.

The risk for the disease increases with age; 60 percent of cases are diagnosed between the ages of 55 and 84, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Having children or taking the birth control pill seems to decrease the risk.

$7.3-million given to the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute by the National Cancer Institute to look for genetic markers that might indicate an increased risk of ovarian cancer.

By the numbers

15,280 Women expected to be killed by ovarian cancer this year in North America.

75% of cases that, when diagnosed, are already in a late stage.

50% Three-year survival rate.

90% Three-year survival rate that researchers think could be possible with earlier diagnoses.

Sources: H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center, Times files