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New clues could lead to early detection, better treatment of ovarian cancer

A*STAR’s Institute of Medical Biology has found a key biomarker of the illness, while Bioinformatics Institute researchers have identified genes that could help inform the treatment of one form of the cancer.

SINGAPORE: Scientists at A*STAR’s Institute of Medical Biology (IMB) and the Bioinformatics Institute (BII) have found new clues that could lead to the early detection and more personalised treatment of ovarian cancer.

IMB scientists have successfully identified a biomarker of ovarian stem cells, which may allow for earlier detection of ovarian cancer and thus allow treatment at an early stage of the illness, A*STAR announced on Friday (Aug 8).

The illness is one of the three predominant cancers that affect women, along with breast and womb cancer. Of the three, ovarian cancer is of the greatest concern as it is usually diagnosed only at an advanced stage due to the absence of clear early warning symptoms unique to the illness, the agency said. Successful treatment is difficult at this late stage, resulting in high mortality rates.

Ovarian cancer has increased in prevalence in Singapore as well as other developed countries recently, and is now the fifth most common cancer in Singapore among women, with about 280 cases diagnosed annually and 90 deaths per year, according to a Singapore Cancer Registry study.

KEY BIOMARKER LOCATED

The IMB team has identified a molecule, known as Lgr5, on a subset of cells in the tissue covering the ovary. Lgr5 has been previously used to identify stem cells in other tissues including the intestine and stomach, but this is the first time that scientists have successfully located this biomarker in the ovary.

Using Lgr5 as a biomarker of ovarian stem cells, ovarian cancer can potentially be detected earlier, allowing for more effective treatment at an early stage of the illness.

The Senior Principal Investigator of the project, Professor Nicholas Barker, said: “Researchers have been intensively looking for markers of ovary stem cells for decades, and the identification of Lgr5 as a specific marker of these cells represents a major breakthrough in this field. We can now rigorously investigate whether these stem cells are the origin of human ovarian cancer, and if so, how to target and eradicate them.

"This finding has paved the way for the development of cancer therapeutics in the future.”

TARGETED TREATMENT

Of the different types of ovarian cancers detected, high-grade serous ovarian carcinoma (HG-SOC) is the most prevalent of epithelial ovarian cancers, and one of the most lethal ovarian cancers, with only 30 per cent of such patients surviving more than five years after diagnosis.

By applying bioinformatics analysis on big cancer genomics data, BII scientists were able to identify genes whose mutation status could be used for prognosis and development of personalised treatment for HG-SOC, A*STAR said.

Mortality after diagnosis currently remains high, as patients receive similar treatment options of chemotherapy and radiotherapy despite the diverse nature of tumour cells within tumours and across different tumour samples. With these findings, personalised medicine for ovarian cancer could be developed, with targeted treatment that would be optimised for subgroups of patients.

The findings of the two studies were published in Nature Cell Biology and Cell Cycle last month.

Said A*STAR Chief Scientist Prof Sir David Lane: “These findings show how the various research institutes at A*STAR offer their expertise in developing new approaches to examine different aspects of the same disease that have not been successfully studied before, such as ovarian cancer. The diverse capabilities and knowledge of our scientists allows us to investigate diseases holistically, from diagnosis to treatment.” 

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