Blood test may spot ovarian cancer, preliminary study suggests

Friday, February 8th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

A simple blood test may be able to identify ovarian cancer at its earliest stage, when it's hardest to spot but at its most curable, a preliminary study suggests.

Currently, around three-quarters of women with ovarian cancer are diagnosed in advanced stages of the disease, when they have only about a 20 percent chance of surviving five years. But if the disease is caught early, the five-year survival is around 95 percent.

So providing a way to routinely identify the disease in its ``Stage I'' phase ``could have a dramatic impact in what is now a very deadly cancer,'' said Dr. Elise Kohn, a study author.

Kohn is clinical director of a joint program of the National Cancer Institute and the Food and Drug Administration that focuses on proteomics, the study of the proteins inside cells. Scientists from those two agencies and elsewhere present their results in a report published online Friday by The Lancet.

They tried their test on blood samples from 50 women with ovarian cancer and 66 women without the disease. The test correctly identified all 50 samples from the cancer patients, including all 18 samples from women with Stage I disease. And it recognized 63 of the 66 samples that were non-cancerous.

Dr. Lance Liotta of the National Cancer Institute, senior investigator on the study, said the results are ``a first step.'' Now the test must be studied with larger numbers of women and in different medical centers ``to make sure it's as good as we hope it can be.''

The researchers said that if the test proves useful it would be applied initially in women considered at high risk because of their genetic makeup or family history of the disease. Eventually, it might be extended to other women as well, they said.

Some 23,300 American women are expected to be diagnosed with ovarian cancer this year, and the disease is expected to cause 13,900 deaths. It accounts for 4 percent of all cancers among women.

The experimental test measures the levels of five proteins found in the blood. The combined result in a blood sample is used to indicate the presence of cancer, said Emanuel Petricoin of the FDA, lead author on the paper.

Dr. Martee Hensley, an ovarian cancer expert at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, called the test innovative and potentially useful, but said it must be assessed in larger groups of women.

``Right now, there's not a great way to find early stage ovarian cancer,'' she said.

``We clearly need new technology,'' and the experimental test might be ``at least two or three steps in the right direction,'' she said.

It could be useful in screening women at high risk of the disease if a positive result is shown to reliably indicate ovarian cancer, without too many ``false positives'' that erroneously indicate cancer, she said. That's because a false positive could lead to needless surgery.

The test would need further study in the general population to assess its accuracy in that group, she said.