Protein Discovery May Lead to Superior Ovarian Cancer Detection


Early treatment of ovarian cancer is vital to survival.

Researchers have discovered a protein that may help detect ovarian cancer early, along with an enzyme vital to the growth and spread of the disease, with both findings providing a potential target for new treatments.

The key to beating ovarian cancer is early detection and treatment; if the cancer is found early, it typically responds well to chemotherapy. However, once it metastasizes it becomes chemo-resistant, and extremely difficult to kill.

“We need to save the lives of more women by making ovarian cancer treatment more effective,” said Katherine Taylor, chief executive at Ovarian Cancer Action. “There has been little progress in ovarian cancer treatment in the past 30 years so these findings are promising, and have provided 2 areas of focus for scientists working on ovarian cancer. Early detection and effective treatment are vital, and these discoveries will hopefully bring us closer to both.”

In a study published in EBioMedicine, researchers found that individuals with ovarian cancer, and those with inherited mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, had higher levels of the protein SOX2 present in their fallopian tubes.

“Ovarian cancer can be undetectable for up to 4 years and only a third of people with the cancer get an early diagnosis,” said researcher Professor Ahmed Ahmed. “A test for SOX2 could not only help detect cancers early but in some cases would enable us to detect a tumor before it becomes cancerous. Early treatment hugely improves the odds for patients, so early detection is essential. However, there is still a lot of work to be done because detecting SOX2 in the fallopian tubes is not an early task.”

During a second study published in Cancer Cell, researchers identified an enzyme responsible for enabling ovarian cancer to metastasize. Once the cancer starts to spread, it will typically do so in the omentum, which is an apron of fatty tissue that covers the small intestine, and is rich in adipocytes.

In prior research, the free fatty acids produced by these cells increase the spread of cancer. However, the results of the current study showed that ovarian cancer was only able to proliferate in the presence of the enzyme SIK2, which plays a role in fat burning to produce energy that cancer cells need to survive in the omentum.

“We continued this study of SIK2 and found that levels of the enzyme were higher in secondary tumors in the omentum than in the related primary tumors in the ovaries,” Ahmed said.

Following a series of experiments, researchers were able to confirm that SIK2 not only played a key role in the growth of ovarian tumors, but also in the metastasis that spreads them to the omentum, where they become much more lethal.

“SIK2 is an important target for future treatments because it provides cancer cells with energy and also drives their increase in number,” Ahmed said. “Our experiments showed that suppressing SIK2 disrupted these pathways, which in the human body would reduce the possibility of cancer cells spreading and coming back.”

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