UT researcher advances ovarian cancer detection techniques

Samagra Jain

On September 2016, a UT employee named Rebecca W. began experiencing some pain in her pelvis, but she was convinced that it was just something like indigestion. When the pain worsened, her family doctor recommended a blood test where he discovered she had elevated levels of a protein called CA125, which can act as a marker for ovarian cancer. A follow-up pelvic ultrasound showed a large mass on her left ovary, and a biopsy soon confirmed it to be stage 1B ovarian cancer.

According to the American Cancer Society, a woman only has a 1 in 78 chance of developing ovarian cancer, yet it ranks fifth in cancer deaths among women. Rebecca was luckier than most women who develop ovarian cancer because it was arrested early and she was able to resume her normal life after treatment.

Rebecca has asked The Daily Texan to withhold her complete last name for anonymity purposes.

Marian Williams-Brown, a clinical professor at UT’s Dell Medical School and the Women’s Health Institute, is working to improve early detection techniques for ovarian cancer. In a collaboration with MD Anderson Cancer Center, Williams-Brown is conducting a study to create an algorithm based on a person’s age and CA125 levels that detects ovarian cancer more accurately.

“Detecting ovarian cancer is like looking for a needle in a haystack,” Williams-Brown said. “The methods that we have right now (blood tests and ultrasounds) are unable to find that needle.”

Hormonal changes can affect CA125 levels and ovaries naturally develop cysts during ovulation, Williams-Brown said, so Rebecca’s doctors were reluctant to diagnose her with cancer right away.

Many women with ovarian cancer find out at stage 3 or 4, a point where it becomes exponentially more difficult to treat, Williams-Brown said. Her research could make it easier for doctors to confirm a diagnosis in cases like Rebecca’s in the future.

By tracking a group of post-menopausal women’s CA125 levels over a long period of time, Williams-Brown is designing an algorithm to give a person a “score,” which can be compared to other scores to determine their chances of having the disease.

With the results from this study, Williams-Brown hopes to identify additional markers for ovarian cancer, which would allow for earlier detection of the disease.

“Ideally, we would catch the cancer before stage 3 or above, so tracking a population over a long time would help us reach this goal,” she said.

Williams-Brown said birth control can reduce the risk of ovarian cancer, although some studies show an increased risk of breast cancer when taking contraceptives.

“Suppressing the menstrual cycle can give the ovary time to rest and repair … so maybe birth control isn’t the worst thing in the world,” she said.

Williams-Brown added that price is a major obstacle for ovarian cancer testing.

“There are a lot of women who aren’t concerned with ovarian cancer … when their doctor orders a blood test for CA125, they would likely be paying for it out of pocket,” Williams-Brown said. “There just isn’t enough evidence for insurance companies to include testing in their coverage policies.”

If the results from Williams-Brown’s study leads to an impact on a public scale, more ovarian cancer patients could be able to enjoy an outcome like Rebecca’s.

“I’m really grateful that my doctors trusted their instincts and moved forward with the biopsy,” Rebecca said. “Thanks to them, we caught the cancer early and I can keep living like nothing ever happened.”