High grade serous ovarian cancer (HGSOC) is the most common subtype of ovarian cancer and is one of the deadliest. Over 80% of these ovarian cancers are detected at an advanced stage, such as stage III or IV, when cancers are much harder to treat. As a result, 10-year survival rates are less than 30% in the UK.
This is despite the fact that HGSOC has a latency period predicted to be between 6.5 and 40 years, whereby a precancerous lesion in the fallopian tube has developed and will go on to become a cancerous tumour. So, despite being present in the body for a long time with a window of opportunity for early detection, current methods are poor at detecting this type of ovarian cancer at an early stage once it has progressed.
Late detection is due in part to a lack of screening techniques for ovarian cancer, such as the very successful screening programmes for other cancers like cervical or colorectal cancer, which have had a considerable impact on patient outcomes over the last decade. Ovarian cancer symptoms are also very non-specific and so make early diagnosis even more challenging, with women often presenting with bloating, abdominal pain, weight loss or weight gain. The precancerous lesions of the fallopian tubes that could develop into serous ovarian cancer are also hard to find due to their small size, and thus are challenging to study. There is therefore an urgent need to find new methods for early detection.
Nina Wietek from the Ahmed Lab at the Nuffield Department of Women’s & Reproductive Health is investigating potential avenues for early detection through sequencing tumours and precancerous tissue to explore tumour initiation. To do this Nina is studying highly relevant samples obtained directly from patients to gain important insights into tumour development using the power of genomics. Through enhancing our understanding of these early changes, they hope to devise new detection methods in order to diagnose ovarian cancer at an early stage, which will have a direct impact on patient survival.