A University of Adelaide scientist and leading Adelaide surgeon is developing an early detection test for a deadly cancer and has today received a funding boost from the Ovarian Cancer Research Foundation (OCRF).
Professor Martin Oehler, Clinical Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University’s Robinson Research Institute and Director of Gynaecological Oncology at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, is one of seven Australian scientists awarded a share of $2.8 million in funding from the OCRF to support research into early detection and better treatment of ovarian cancer.
Ovarian cancer is the deadliest gynaecological disease. Every year, more than 1600 Australian women are diagnosed with the disease and it claims the lives of more than 1000. It is known as the silent killer, as women with early stage ovarian cancer commonly do not present with any symptoms. This means the disease is often not detected until the advanced stages and spread beyond the ovaries, with the five-year survival rate a depressingly low 45 per cent.
Unlike other cancers which can be diagnosed by effective screening at an early stage (eg cervical cancer by cervical screening test or breast cancer by mammography), an early detection test for ovarian cancer does not exist.
Focusing on the immune system’s response, Professor Oehler has identified three potential targets that indicate with high accuracy the presence of early ovarian cancer.
The targets are called autoantibodies – antibodies produced in response to the body’s own cancer tissue. His team at the University of Adelaide’s Robinson Research Institute, in collaboration with the University of South Australia, is now in the process of developing a robust screening test with autoantibody biomarkers with the aim to use it for ovarian cancer population screening.
“We are currently optimising the test,” Professor Oehler said. “It is looking good, we are very positive,” he said. “If our hypothesis is correct, there is an immune response to the cancer and we should be able to tap into this response, measure it and use it for an early detection test.” His research will now look to validate the results in a large group of patient samples.
Professor Oehler is both a researcher and a clinician whose patients include women with ovarian cancer, which motivates him to find a way to improve women’s likelihood of surviving this terrible disease.
“That is the reason why I work in research, because you know that this is the only way you are going to be able to improve the outcomes of these women. Ovarian cancer is such a terrible disease, so unless we are able to develop an early detection test, unless we develop more effective treatments, people are never going to get better.”
OCRF chair Ms Julie Toop said the research projects funded in 2018 including Professor Oehler’s were exciting, diverse and promising. “Ovarian cancer is an insidious disease that often strikes without warning. Across Australia, one woman dies every eight hours from this disease. The key to changing this statistic and giving women with ovarian cancer a better long-term outlook is early detection and innovative new treatments,” Ms Toop said.
“We are excited by the unique approaches taken by these leading researchers and are hopeful the research we support will become a reality to detect this disease early and treat it effectively, so women can continue to lead long and fulfilling lives.”
The OCRF is the leading funder of ovarian cancer research in Australia. Grants support scientists undertaking critical research work, help build cutting-edge laboratory environments and enable the retention of scientific expertise in a drastically underfunded field of cancer research.