Ovarian Cancer

 Ovarian cancer is the most deadly cancer of the female reproductive system. In 2009, it is estimated that this cancer alone will claim 14,600 American women’s lives. Often known as “the silent killer,” ovarian cancer is difficult to detect early because the ovaries are deep within the pelvis and initial symptoms are often ambiguous. Too often the cancer goes undiagnosed until after the disease is far advanced and has spread throughout the abdomen or to distant organs. After the cancer has metastasized, survival rates plummet because the current treatments are largely ineffective in fighting late stage ovarian cancer. More effective treatments and better early detection tools must be developed to meet the unmet needs of ovarian cancer patients and save their lives.


The National Foundation for Cancer Research funds an array of research projects conducted by leading scientists in the field of ovarian cancer research. Listed below are some notable ovarian cancer research programs that NFCR currently supports:

Developing a New Model for Ovarian Cancer Treatment
Robert C. Bast, Jr., M.D., University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center

Ovarian cancer continues to claim the lives of three out of four women with the disease, due mainly to the persistence of drug-resistant cancer cells that survive despite standard chemotherapy. These resistant cancer cells can remain dormant or “asleep” for years, only to awaken later and grow progressively until they cause the death of the patient.

A key to understanding and perhaps killing off dormant ovarian cancer cells may lie in a recent discovery by NFCR Project Director Robert C. Bast, Jr., M.D. Dr. Bast and his research team at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center found a gene called ARHI, which plays a critical role in the survival of dormant cancer cells. The team further developed a new experimental model in which ARHI can be switched on and off to closely mimic the actual tumor dormancy and regrowth that occurs in humans. This model will help cancer researchers understand the molecular mechanism of cell dormancy and open the door to the development of new treatments that eliminate these cells before they can become reactivated in the body. In addition, because of the similarities between this new model and the actual disease in humans, new therapeutics can be rapidly moved into clinical trials to treat ovarian cancer patients and give them renewed hope.

Making Taxol Work More Effectively
Susan Band Horwitz, Ph.D., Albert Einstein College of Medicine

Paclitaxel, better known by its brand name, Taxol®, is one of the most widely used chemotherapy drugs in the world. It has been used to treat over a million cancer patients with ovarian, breast, and lung cancer. But Taxol is not a magic bullet – it gradually loses its effectiveness as tumors develop resistance to it during treatment. Internationally renowned for her discovery of the molecular mechanism of Taxol, NFCR Fellow Susan Band Horwitz, Ph.D., at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, is now exploring why tumor resistance to Taxol occurs and how to make the drug work better. Dr. Horwitz reasoned that during chemotherapy treatment, tumor cells may activate a protective molecular pathway which renders tumors resistant to Taxol. Once she had confirmed that alternate pathway, she proposed a combinatory drug approach in which a second drug is used to inhibit the activated molecular pathway and make the tumor cells regain sensitivity to Taxol. This rational combination strategy turned out to be very effective in experiments with tumor models, and may soon enter clinical trials with cancer patients to confirm its value as a treatment option.

Stopping Cancer’s Lethal Spread
NFCR Center of Metastasis Research, University of Alabama (Birmingham)
Center Director: Danny Welch, Ph.D.

Two-thirds of ovarian cancer cases are diagnosed when the disease has already spread throughout the abdomen and to distant organs, and only 30% of women with late stage ovarian cancer now survive five years or longer. Very little is known about how cancer cells spread to distant sites in the body and many researchers have shied away from the complex biology of metastatic cancer.

At the NFCR Center for Metastasis Research, the Center Director Danny Welch, Ph.D., and his collaborators from five universities across the United States are opening the research doors to an understanding of the metastatic process. They have discovered six “metastasis suppressor genes” including the BRMS1 gene found in metastatic breast and ovarian cancer. Using cancer cell lines and DNA chip technology (microarray), they are identifying molecular factors (microRNAs) which may mediate the suppression of cancer metastasis by BRMS1. The impact of this research is enormously significant as it could lead to novel anti-cancer therapies that prevent breast and ovarian cancer from spreading to distant organs, bringing the cancer under control and giving patients increased likelihood of long term survival.

Fighting Ovarian Cancer on a Global Scale
NFCR-Tianjin Cancer Institute Joint Tissue Banking Facility in Tianjin, China

High quality cancer tissues and blood samples obtained directly from actual cancer patients are a most valuable resource for cancer researchers. From these specimens, scientists can extract DNA, RNA, and protein data to discover and analyze the underpinning molecular abnormalities of cancer. NFCR and our partner in China established a cancer tissue bank that systematically collects human cancer tissues, blood, and other biospecimens, and preserves these precious samples for cancer research. To date, the tissue bank has collected and systematically annotated over 19,000 cancer tissues and nearly 8,000 blood samples, including about 400 ovarian tumor specimens and more than 200 blood samples from ovarian cancer patients. These samples are well preserved to keep them suitable for research with all the cutting-edge molecular techniques (such as DNA chip technology) for identifying new cancer biomarkers for early detection and molecular targets for drug development. This international research facility is currently partnering with two major pharmaceutical companies, Amgen and Pfizer, to develop early diagnostic tests and more effective targeted cancer therapies.

Further growth of the tissue bank will continue to promote collaborative efforts on molecular cancer research for producing new life-saving treatments and diagnostic tools for patients around the world.

How You Can Help

These research projects hold great promise for yielding more effective therapies for patients with ovarian cancer. With more funding, however, they could ramp up their efforts and accelerate progress to save more lives! When you donate to NFCR, your dollars help our scientists accomplish many important research goals aimed at developing better cancer treatment and prevention strategies. Click here to learn more.

All About Ovarian Cancer

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