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New Blood Test May Save Lives by Detecting Ovarian Cancer Earlier

ovarian cancer

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Key Takeaways

  • Current ovarian cancer screening measures cannot detect the disease in its early stages.
  • A new test that measures specific changes to the ovarian cancer marker CA-125 is 4.5 times more sensitive than CA-125 and gives results in 30 minutes.
  • Ovarian cancer has nondescript symptoms in its beginning stages, and so it is vital for women to be aware of the early warning signs.

Ovarian cancer is a serious illness that often goes undiagnosed until it reaches later stages and becomes more difficult to treat. However, researchers in Finland have created a new blood test that can detect ovarian cancer in its earlier stages, potentially saving lives.

Their findings, which take a different approach to an existing biomarker for ovarian cancer, were published in the journal Communications Biology on August 21.

The current test that is used to screen for ovarian cancer is the CA-125 blood test. CA-125, a protein released by the female reproductive tract, is elevated in people with ovarian cancer. A physician may also order a transvaginal ultrasound to examine the ovaries if ovarian cancer is suspected, but only a biopsy can confirm the diagnosis.

CA-125 can be elevated in other situations, as well.

"CA-125 is a non-specific protein," Kecia Gaither, MD, MPH, FACOG, a board-certified OB/GYN and maternal-fetal medicine specialist who serves as Director of Perinatal Services for NYC Health+Hospitals/Lincoln, tells Verywell via email. "Its elevated presence is not only found in ovarian cancer cells, but is also noted to be elevated in cases of endometriosis, leiomyomas of the uterus, inflammatory bowel disease, pelvic inflammatory disease, peritonitis, and diverticulitis."

False-positives may lead to patients being subjected to further unnecessary tests and added anxiety. For these reasons, CA-125 is used mostly as a cancer marker to monitor the progression or regression of known ovarian cancer.

In the new test that was developed, researchers in Finland looked at quantitative later flow immunoassay (LFIA) of CA-125 proteins that were experiencing something called abnormal glycosylation, study author Kim Pettersson of the University of Turku in Finland, tells Verywell via email.

What Is Abnormal Glycosylation?

Abnormal (or aberrant) glycosylation refers to how cancer cells put carbohydrates and proteins together to sustain themselves.

As ovarian cancer progresses, the cancer cell walls change, and carbohydrates play a large role in this process. The LFIA measures the cells that have undergone this transformation, making it a more sensitive test than the standard CA-125, Pettersson explains.

"Cancer cells, like any other cells, have to produce specific proteins," Gaither says. "In the process of doing so, carbohydrates are utilized. Glycosylation involves carbohydrate use in the making of proteins. In cancer cells, they have an aberrant glycosylation process, which this test specifically identifies."

Gaither says the test has specific advantages.

"This novel methodology of glycovariant analysis for ovarian cancer holds great promise as a screening test that is specific, easy to utilize, and can pick up disease at an earlier point to afford aggressive treatment," Gaither adds.

According to the American Cancer Society:

  • About 21,750 women will receive a new diagnosis of ovarian cancer in 2020.
  • About 13,940 will die from ovarian cancer in 2020.
  • Ovarian cancer is the fifth most fatal type of cancer in women.
  • A woman's lifetime risk of ovarian cancer is about 1 in 78.

Early Warning Signs of Ovarian Cancer

Because ovarian cancer is difficult to find in its beginning stages, and this new test is not yet widely used as a screening measure, people need to be aware of the early warning signs.

John Diaz, MD, a gynecologic oncologist with the Miami Cancer Institute, tells Verywell via email that there are four key symptoms of ovarian cancer all women should know, and they should seek medical intervention if the symptoms are new, occur more than 12 times a month, and don't dissipate when changing the environment through diet or exercise. These symptoms are:

  • Bloating
  • Pain in the pelvis and/or abdomen
  • Trouble eating or sensation of quickly feeling full
  • Feeling the need to urgently urinate and/or urinate more frequently. 

Lesser-Known Early Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer: 

  • Easily fatigued/tiredness
  • Pain during intercourse
  • Upset stomach or heartburn
  • Persistent or worsening constipation
  • Abdominal enlargement or swelling
  • Abdominal fullness and pain
  • Changes in bowel or bladder habits
  • Unintentional weight loss or weight gain
  • Clothes not fitting well
  • Feeling full after eating very little
  • Back pain
  • Changes in the menstrual cycle, including heavier than normal or irregular bleeding

Why Early Detection is So Important

"In the developed world, ovarian cancer is the most lethal of the gynecologic malignancies," Diaz says. “Dr. Pettersson’s work may provide the ability to diagnose ovarian cancer at an earlier stage where it may be more effectively treated and provide better outcomes, but further research is needed to understand the real-world applications of this novel test.”

Should You Be Screened?

"Currently, the guidelines for ovarian cancer [screening] focus more so on women who are at risk, like women who have a strong family history of ovarian or breast cancer, personal history of breast cancer prior to the age of 40, or findings of abnormalities on BRCA1 or BRCA 2 gene analysis, to name a few [risk factors]," Gaither says.

Genetic screening is key for women of Jewish Ashkenazi descent, or those with a maternal or paternal family paternal or maternal history of breast or ovarian cancer, Nicholas Lambrou, MD, Chief of Gynecologic Oncology at the Miami Cancer Institute, tells Verywell via email.

"Genetic screening is so profound because you can essentially prevent cancers from ever occurring if you receive the information early enough," Lambrou says. "The two most common genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2, connect breast and ovarian cancer."

Genetic screening can also be important even if you've already been diagnosed with cancer. Discovering a gene mutation can help predict your risk of developing another type of cancer.

"All ovarian cancer patients and all breast cancer patients, once they have received a diagnosis, should be screened for genetic testing," Lambrou adds. "If you carry a BRCA1 gene mutation, there's a 90% risk of developing breast cancer and a 50% risk of developing ovarian cancer."

Be Proactive With Annual Exams

While the blood test being explored by the Finnish researchers would be a game-changer, there's currently no screening tool for the early stages of ovarian cancer.

"Unfortunately, there is no effective screening for early detection of ovarian cancer," Lambrou says. "By visiting your gynecologist annually for a routine pelvic exam, potential abnormalities may be identified sooner."

He adds that routine gynecological visits are still important, even during COVID-19.

"With routine cancer screenings being put on pause during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, these exams are more important than ever," Lambrou says. "Minority populations, including African American and Hispanic women, carry a higher risk of developing gynecological cancers and are also more at risk for receiving a poor prognosis due to disparities in access to screening and testing."

What This Means For You

Do not delay in speaking with your doctor if you notice any changes in your health, including the above-mentioned indications of ovarian cancer. The earlier a diagnosis is made, the better the prognosis is for the patient.

Lambrou also points to recent advances in ovarian cancer treatment leading to better outcomes, including new drugs and advances in chemotherapy.

"Surgery by an experienced gynecological oncologist remains the mainstay of treatment for ovarian cancer," Lambrou says. "However, the management of ovarian cancer has undergone dramatic changes over the last few years, contributing to enhanced patient outlooks."

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Article Sources
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  1. Bayoumy S, Hyytiä H, Leivo J. et al. Glycovariant-based lateral flow immunoassay to detect ovarian cancer–associated serum CA125Commun Biol 3, 460 (2020). doi:10.1038/s42003-020-01191-x

  2. American Cancer Society. Can Ovarian Cancer Be Found Early? Updated July 24, 2020.

  3. Mehrgou A, Akouchekian M. The importance of BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes mutations in breast cancer developmentMed J Islam Repub Iran. 2016;30:369. Published 2016 May 15.

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