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Networking to save lives: A Q&A on ovarian cancer

network-889351_1920Approximately 22,280 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and an estimated 14,240 will die from the disease in the United States this year. Ovarian cancer is deadly in part because the early warning signs are limited and nonspecific — such as abdominal bloating, pelvic pain, a frequent need to urinate and quickly feeling full when eating — so the symptoms are often blamed on other more common conditions. And pap smears don't detect it, so only 15 percent of ovarian cancer cases are detected before the disease has spread to other tissues.

In 2009, the Department of Defense Ovarian Cancer Research Program created a unique, interactive virtual academy for early-career ovarian cancer researchers, called the OCRP Ovarian Cancer Academy. I recently spoke with a new member of the academy, Erinn Rankin, PhD, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology and of radiation oncology, about the program and her research.

What's unique about the Ovarian Cancer Academy?

The program is a really special funding mechanism that pairs early-career investigators with a local university mentor and a secondary mentor from another university. It provides early investigators access to the ovarian cancer community, mentorship from established researchers and networking opportunities. Once a year, all members meet together in person. We also have monthly webinars that cover topics for early career development, such as introducing us to patient advocacy groups. And we discuss our individual research and try to identify areas where we can collaborate.

It’s a great grant that will support my research for five years with a total of about $1 million. But really the access to all the mentors, investigators and networking is more important to my career than the money. I’m very honored and privileged to be part of it. I have a really supportive mentor, Jonathan Berek, MD, who is chair of obstetrics and gynecology here at Stanford. He’s fostered my career in ovarian cancer research. He’s also provided me with the opportunity to collaborate with other great researchers, like Oliver Dorigo, MD, PhD.

What are the major challenges of ovarian cancer diagnosis and treatment?

Ovarian cancer is a highly metastatic and deadly disease. Most patients are diagnosed with advanced metastatic disease. The standard of care for these patients is quite striking. They go through a surgical debulking and then they are treated with conventional chemotherapy. Unfortunately, most of them become resistant to the chemotherapy after multiple cycles, so they end up succumbing to their disease.

It’s such a devastating cancer. If we can make an impact for these patients, it would be wonderful. Since we don’t have good mechanisms to detect the disease earlier, a good way to improve overall survival is to develop new therapies that can effectively treat resistant metastatic disease and prevent recurrence.

What is the specific focus of your ovarian cancer research?

I study how the microenvironment of a tumor influences metastatic progression. In particular, I focus on how hypoxia, or low oxygen supply, drives ovarian cancer metastasis and its resistance to therapy. Virtually every solid tumor has areas of hypoxia. And hypoxia in these tumors is often associated with poor response to therapy, further metastatic progression and poor patient survival. This is the case in ovarian cancer.

We’ve identified a new, really exciting cancer therapy target — a cell receptor enzyme called axl that has a molecular link to hypoxia. Axl is highly expressed in ovarian cancer metastatic lesions in comparison to normal ovary tissue. We identified axl as a key factor regulating ovarian cancer metastasis through genetic means. We then collaborated with Amato Giaccia, PhD, in the radiation oncology department and Jennifer Cochran, PhD, in the bioengineering department to develop a novel therapeutic agent to target axl for metastatic therapy.

Our research now focuses on how our anti-axl therapy works to treat advanced metastatic ovarian cancer. We’re testing it in combination with the standard of care, which is chemotherapy, in two preclinical mouse models of ovarian cancer. We’re really excited. Our anti-axl therapy appears to be a highly potent and safe hypoxia inhibitor. Once we generate more preclinical data, we plan to take this agent into clinical trials. I hope our therapy will make a difference for these patients.

Jennifer Huber, PhD, is a science writer with extensive technical communications experience as an academic research scientist, freelance science journalist, and writing instructor.

Previously: Frontiers in the fight against ovarian cancerChecking up on patient experiences with ovarian cancer and Study shows daily aspirin could lower women’s risk of ovarian cancer
Photo by geralt

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