Canadian Researchers Link DICER1 Gene Mutation to Non-Epithelial Ovarian Cancers & Other Rare Tumor Types

Canadian researchers affiliated with the Ovarian Cancer Research Program of British Columbia report that recurrent, lifetime-acquired mutations affecting the DICER1 gene occur in a range of nonepithelial ovarian tumors as well as other rare cancer tumor types, and appear common in Sertoli-Leydig ovarian tumors. The study findings were published online today in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Dr. Gregg Morin, Head of Proteomics, Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre, BC Cancer Agency; DICER 1 Mutation Ovarian Cancer Study Co-Leader

Dr. David Huntsman, Genetic Pathologist & Director of the Ovarian Cancer Research Program of British Columbia at the BC Cancer Agency & Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute; DICER 1 Mutation Ovarian Cancer Study Co-Leader

Scientists at the British Columbia (BC) Cancer Agency, Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute, and the University of British Columbia (UBC) are excited over a discovery made while studying rare tumor types.

Dr. David Huntsman, genetic pathologist and director of the Ovarian Cancer Program of BC (OvCaRe) at the BC Cancer Agency and Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute, and Dr. Gregg Morin, a lead scientist from the Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre at the BC Cancer Agency, led a research team who discovered that mutations in rare, seemingly unrelated cancers were all linked to the same gene, known as “DICER1.” The study findings were published online today in the New England Journal of Medicine. [1]

Background: RNA Interference, MicroRNAs, and DICER.

Nucleic acids are molecules that carry genetic information and include DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) and RNA (ribonucleic acid). The DNA segments that carry genetic information are called “genes.” Together these molecules form the building blocks of life. DNA contains the genetic code or “blueprint” used in the development and functioning of all living organisms, while “messenger RNAs” or mRNAs help to translate that genetic code into proteins by acting as a messenger between the DNA instructions located in the cell nucleus and the protein synthesis which takes place in the cell cytoplasm (i.e., outside the cell nucleus, but inside the outer cell membrane). Accordingly, DNA is first “transcribed” or copied into mRNA, which, in turn, gets “translated” or synthesized into protein.

RNA interference” (RNAi) is a mechanism through which gene expression is inhibited at the translation stage, thereby disrupting the protein production within a cell. RNAi is considered one of the most important discoveries in the field of molecular biology. Andrew Fire, Ph.D., and Craig C. Mello, Ph.D. shared the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for work that led to the discovery of the RNAi mechanism. While the mechanism itself is termed “RNA interference,” there are two major types of RNA molecules that play a key role in effectuating that interference. The first type of RNA molecules consists of “microRNAs” or miRNAs, while the second type consists of “small interfering RNAs” or siRNAs.

Current thinking suggests that RNAi evolved as a cellular defense mechanism against invaders such as RNA viruses. When they replicate, RNA viruses temporarily exist in a double-stranded form. This double-stranded intermediate would trigger RNAi and inactivate the virus’ genes, thereby preventing viral infection. RNAi may also have evolved to combat the spread of genetic elements called “transposons” within a cell’s DNA. Transposons can wreak havoc by jumping from spot to spot on a genome, sometimes causing mutations that can lead to cancer or other diseases. Like RNA viruses, transposons can take on a double-stranded RNA form that would trigger RNAi to clamp down on the potentially harmful “jumping gene” activity. Also, as noted above, RNAi is important for regulating gene expression. For example, the turning down of specific genes is critical to proper embryonic development.

Of relevance to the Canadian study findings within the context of RNAi are miRNAs. MiRNAs can bind to mRNAs and either increase or decrease their activity, for example, by preventing a mRNA from producing a protein. [2] In this context, “gene silencing” can occur through mRNA degradation or prevention of mRNA translation.  MiRNAs play an integral role in numerous biological processes, including the immune response, cell-cycle control, metabolism, viral replication, stem cell differentiation and human development. MiRNA expression or function is significantly altered in many disease states, including cancer.

Because of its involvement in miRNA processing, the DICER1 gene plays an important role in maintaining health. It carries out a “factory style” function which involves chopping up miRNAs to activate them. [Ref. 2] These miRNAs, in turn, control hundreds of other genes as noted above. Based upon a study led by investigators from the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, the expression levels of DICER have global effects on the biogenesis of miRNA, and reduced gene expression correlates with a poor outcome in ovarian cancer. [3] In the M.D. Anderson study, two somatic (i.e., lifetime-acquired) missense DICER mutations were discovered in two epithelial ovarian cancer tumors. The M.D. Anderson investigators concluded that the DICER mutations were not associated with the alterations in DICER expression found in mRNAs. It is important to note that the type of somatic missense DICER mutations discovered in the M.D. Anderson study were not the same as those discovered in the Canadian study as discussed below.

Recurrent DICER Mutations Are Predominant In A Rare Form of Non-Epithelial Ovarian Cancer.

At the outset of the Canadian study, the OvCaRe team sequenced ovarian, uterine, and testicular tumors, expecting to find that their genomes would be distinct with specific, differing abnormalities. Much to their amazement, the researchers discovered that the same fundamental mutation in the DICER1 gene represented a common process underlying the different cancers which they examined.

Specifically, the Canadian investigators sequenced the whole transcriptomes or exomes of 14 nonepithelial ovarian tumors, which included two Sertoli–Leydig cell tumors, four juvenile (not adult) granulosa-cell tumors, and eight primitive germ-cell tumors of the yolk-sac type. The researchers identified closely clustered mutations in the region of DICER1 which encode the RNase IIIb domain in four samples. Based on these findings, the OvCaRe team sequenced the same region of DICER1 in additional ovarian tumors, and tested for the effect of the mutations on the enzymatic activity of DICER1.

Recurrent somatic (i.e., lifetime-acquired) DICER1 mutations in the RNase IIIb domain were identified in 30 of 102 nonepithelial ovarian tumors (29%), including 4 tumors which also possessed germline (i.e., inherited) DICER1 mutations. The highest frequency of somatic DICER1 mutations occurred in Sertoli–Leydig cell tumors (26 of 43, or 60%). Notably, the mutant DICER1 proteins identified in the samples possessed reduced RNase IIIb activity, but retained RNase IIIa activity.

The Canadian researchers also performed additional tumor testing and detected the DICER1 mutations in 1 of 14 nonseminomatous testicular germ-cell tumors, 2 of 5 embryonal rhabdomyosarcomas, and in 1 of 266 epithelial ovarian and endometrial carcinomas.

The groundbreaking nature of this discovery is reflected in the fact that the DICER1 “hotspot” mutations are not present in the 1000 Genomes Project data or the public data repository of The Cancer Genome Atlas consortium. To date, no recurrent DICER1 mutations have been reported in the mutation database of the Catalogue of Somatic Mutations in Cancer (COSMIC), in which 4 of 938 reported cancers possess somatic mutations but none in the RNase IIIb domain hot spots or RNase IIIa equivalents. Moreover, the Canadian researchers note that the newly-discovered DICER1 mutations were not observed in any of the more than 1000 cancer sequencing libraries which were studied.

Based upon the foregoing , the researchers concluded that somatic missense mutations affecting the RNase IIIb domain of DICER1 occur in a range of nonepithelial ovarian tumors, and possibly other cancers. Furthermore, the DICER1 mutations appear to be common in Sertoli-Leydig ovarian tumors (which are a subtype of nonepithelial, sex cord-stromal ovarian tumors). The researchers believe that the recurrent DICER1 mutations identified implicate a novel defect in miRNA processing which does not entirely destroy DICER1 functionality, but alters it.

Accordingly, the Canadian researchers suggest that the newly-discovered DICER1 mutations may represent an oncogenic event within the specific context of nonepithelial ovarian tumors, rather than a permissive event in tumor onset (as may be expected for loss of function in a tumor suppressor gene). The researchers note that DICER1 expression in tumors possessing the hotspot DICER1 somatic mutations argues against a role for DICER1 as a classic tumor suppressor gene. They further explain that the localized and focal pattern of the identified DICER1 mutations is typical of dominantly acting oncogenes, like KRAS and BRAF.

In sum, the Canadian researchers believe that the recurrent and focal nature of the DICER1 mutations and their restriction to nonepithelial ovarian tumors suggest a common oncogenic mechanism associated with a specifically altered DICER1 function that is selected during tumor development in specific cell types.

The Canadian study was supported through funding by Canadian Institutes for Health Research, Terry Fox Foundation, BC Cancer Foundation, VGH & UBC Hospital Foundation, Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research, and Genome BC.

Expert Commentary

DICER is of great interest to cancer researchers” said Dr. Huntsman, who also holds the Dr. Chew Wei Memorial Professorship in the departments of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at UBC. “There have been nearly 1,300 published studies about it in the last 10 years, but until now, it has not been known how the gene functions in relation to cancer.”

“This discovery shows researchers that these mutations change the function of DICER so that it participates directly in the initiation of cancer, but not in a typical ‘on-off’ fashion,” says Dr. Morin who is also assistant professor in the department of Medical Genetics at UBC. “DICER can be viewed as the conductor for an orchestra of functions critical for the development and behavior of normal cells. The mutations we discovered do not totally destroy the function of DICER rather they warp it—the orchestra is still there but the conductor is drunk.”

This finding is the third of a series of papers published recently in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) in which the OvCaRe team used new genomic technologies to unlock the molecular basis of poorly understood types of ovarian cancer. The first finding, published in the NEJM in 2009, identified mutations in the FOXL2 (forkhead box L2) gene as the molecular basis of adult granulosa cell ovarian cancer tumors. The second finding, published in the NEJM in 2010, determined that approximately one-half of clear-cell ovarian cancers and one-third of endometrioid ovarian cancers possess ARID1A  (AT rich interactive domain 1A) gene mutations.

The DICER gene mutation breakthrough discovery is particularly pivotal because it could lead to solutions for treatment of more common cancers.

“Studying rare tumors not only is important for the patients and families who suffer from them but also provides unique opportunities to make discoveries critical to more common cancers – both in terms of personalized medicine, but also in applying what we learn from how we manage rare diseases to more common and prevalent cancers,” said Dr. Huntsman “The discovery of the DICER mutation in this varied group of rare tumors is the equivalent of finding not the needle in the haystack, but rather the same needle in many haystacks.”

Dr. Phillip A. Sharp, Professor, Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Co-winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine

“This breakthrough will be of interest to both the clinical and the fundamental science communities,” says Dr. Phillip A. Sharp, Professor, Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and co-winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery that genes are not contiguous strings but contain introns, and that the splicing of mRNA to delete those introns can occur in different ways, thereby yielding different proteins from the same DNA sequence. “Huntsman, Morin and colleagues’ very exciting discovery of specific mutations in DICER, a factor essential for syntheses of small regulatory RNAs in ovarian and other human tumors, could lead to new approaches to treatment.”

The Canadian OvCaRe research team is now working to determine the frequency and role of DICER mutations in other types of cancers. The research team is also expanding its collaboration to discover whether mutant DICER and the pathways it controls can be modulated to treat the rare cancers in which the mutations were discovered and more common cancers.

The Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre (Michael Smith GSC), located at the BC Cancer agency, played a key role in this discovery. By way of background, Dr. Michael Smith was a co-winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his development of oligonucleotide-based site-directed mutagenesis, a technique which allows the DNA sequence of any gene to be altered in a designated manner. His technique created a groundbreaking method for studying complex protein functions, the basis underlying a protein’s three-dimensional structure, and a protein’s interaction with other molecules inside the cell.

A decision was made more than 10 years ago, championed by Drs. Michael Smith, Victor Ling, and others to create and locate the Michael Smith GSC within the BC Cancer Agency and in close proximity to Vancouver General Hospital (VGH). The chosen location for this critical facility provided the multidisciplinary cancer research teams in Vancouver with access to state-of-the-art technologies.

“We are one of less than five places in the world doing this type of work successfully. This discovery is one of a series of recent landmark findings from Vancouver that are reshaping our understanding of many cancers,” says Dr. Huntsman. “Since my arrival in Vancouver 20 years ago I have never before sensed such a strong feeling of communal pride and excitement within our research community. Our next task is to bring the discoveries into the clinic.”

About the Ovarian Cancer Research Program of British Columbia (OvCaRe)

OvCaRe is a multidisciplinary research program involving clinicians and research scientists in gynecology, pathology, and medical oncology at VGH and BC Cancer Agency. OvCaRe is a unique collaboration between the BC Cancer Agency, Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute, and UBC. The OvCaRe team is considered a leader in ovarian cancer research which is breaking new ground in better identifying, understanding, and treating this disease. The OvCaRe seminal paper in PLoS (Public Library of Science), which addresses ovarian cancer as a group of distinct diseases, has been embraced by the global research community who has adopted the BC approach to ovarian cancer research. To learn more, visit www.ovcare.ca.

About the Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre

Canada’s Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre is an internationally recognized state-of-the-art facility applying genomics and bioinformatics tools and technologies to cancer research. Led by Dr. Marco Marra, the Michael Smith GSC is one of ten leading genomic research centres in the world and the only one of its kind in the world integrated into a cancer facility. With a primary focus on cancer genomics research, its scientists have been involved in many world-class groundbreaking discoveries over the past decade. To learn more, visit www.bcgsc.ca.

About the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute

Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute is the research body of Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, which includes BC’s largest academic and teaching health sciences centres: Vancouver General Hospital, UBC Hospital, and GF Strong Rehabilitation Centre. The institute is academically affiliated with the UBC Faculty of Medicine, and is one of Canada’s top-funded research centres, with $82.4 million in research funding for 2009/2010. To learn more, visit www.vchri.ca.

About the British Columbia Cancer Agency

The BC Cancer Agency, an agency of the Provincial Health Services Authority, is committed to reducing the incidence of cancer, reducing the mortality from cancer, and improving the quality of life of those living with cancer. It provides a comprehensive cancer control program for the people of British Columbia by working with community partners to deliver a range of oncology services, including prevention, early detection, diagnosis and treatment, research, education, supportive care, rehabilitation and palliative care. To learn more, visit www.bccancer.ca.

About the University of British Columbia

The University of British Columbia is one of North America’s largest public research and teaching institutions, and one of only two Canadian institutions consistently ranked among the world’s 40 best universities. Surrounded by the beauty of the Canadian West, it is a place that inspires bold, new ways of thinking that have helped make it a national leader in areas as diverse as community service learning, sustainability, and research commercialization. UBC offers more than 55,000 students a range of innovative programs and attracts $550 million per year in research funding from government, non-profit organizations, and industry through 7,000 grants. To learn more, visit www.ubc.ca.

References

1/Morin G, Hunstman, DG et al.  Recurrent Somatic DICER1 Mutations in Nonepithelial Ovarian CancersNEJM, published online December 21, 2011 (10.1056/NEJMoa1102903).

2/The Canadian investigators describe the operation of the RNAi pathway with respect to miRNA biogenesis as follows:

“MicroRNAs (miRNAs) are a functional class of noncoding RNA molecules that regulate translation and degradation of messenger RNA. MiRNA transcripts are processed from hairpin pre-miRNA precursors into short miRNA:  miRNA* duplexes consisting of the miRNA targeting strand and the imperfectly complementary miRNA* strand (star strand, or inert carrier strand) by Dicer, an endoribonuclease with two RNase III–like domains. The RNase IIIb domain cuts the miRNA strand, whereas the RNase IIIa domain cleaves the miRNA* strand. The resultant RNA duplex is loaded into the RNA-induced silencing complex (RISC) containing an Argonaute protein. The miRNA* strand is then removed, leaving the miRNA strand, which targets messenger RNAs (mRNAs) for degradation or interacts with the translation initiation complex to inhibit and destabilize translation of the targeted messenger RNAs.” [footnote citations omitted]

3/Merritt WM, et al. Dicer, Drosha, and outcomes in patients with ovarian cancer. N Engl J Med. 2008 Dec 18;359(25):2641-50. Erratum in: N Engl J Med. 2010 Nov 4;363(19):1877. PubMed PMID: 19092150; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC2710981.

Sources:

York University Researchers Identify Genetic Process That May Underlie Ovarian Cancer Chemoresistance

York University researchers have identified a genetic process that may allow ovarian cancer to resist chemotherapy.

York University researchers have zeroed in on a genetic process that may allow ovarian cancer to resist chemotherapy.

Researchers in the York University Faculty of Science & Engineering studied a tiny strand of our genetic makeup known as a microRNA (miRNA), involved in the regulation of gene expression. Cancer occurs when gene regulation goes haywire.

For many years, DNA and proteins have been viewed as the real movers and shakers in genomic studies, with RNA seen as little more than a messenger that shuttles information between the two. In fact, miRNA was considered relatively unimportant less than a decade ago; that is no longer the case. MiRNA seems to stifle the production of proteins exclusively — a function opposite that of its better-known relative, messenger RNA, or mRNA, which translates instructions from genes to create proteins.  MiRNA attaches to a piece of mRNA – which is the master template for building a protein, thereby acting as a signal to prevent translation of the mRNA into a protein. The “silencing” of proteins by miRNAs can be a good or a bad thing, depending on the circumstances.

Chun Peng, Ph.D., Professor of Biology, York University, and her team identified a genetic process involving a "microRNA" that may underlie a form of ovarian cancer chemoresistance.

“Ovarian cancer is a very deadly disease because it’s hard to detect,” says biology professor Chun Peng, who co-authored the study. “By the time it’s diagnosed, usually it is in its late stages. And by that point there’s really no way to treat the disease.” “Even when the disease is discovered in its early stages, chemotherapy doesn’t always work,” she says.

Peng was among a team of researchers that discovered a receptor, ALK7 (activin receptor-like kinase 7), that induces cell-death in epithelial ovarian cancer cells.[1] They have now discerned that miRNA 376c targets this crucial receptor, inhibiting its expression and allowing ovarian cancer cells to thrive.[2]

“Our evidence suggests that miRNA 376c is crucial to determining how a patient will respond to a chemotherapeutic agent,” says Peng. “It allows cancer cells to survive by targeting the very process that kills them off,” she says.

In examining tumors taken from patients who were non-responsive to chemotherapy, researchers found a higher expression of miRNA 376c and a much lower expression of ALK7.  Peng believes that this research is a step towards being able to make chemotherapy drugs more effective in the treatment of the disease.

“Further study is needed, but ultimately if we can introduce anti-microRNAs that would lower the level of those microRNAs that make cancer cells resistant to chemotherapeutic drugs, we will be able to make chemotherapy more effective against ovarian cancer,” Peng says.

She urges women to educate themselves about the risk factors and symptoms of the disease. For more information, visit http://www.ovariancanada.org.

Peng is a world expert in the area of ovarian cancer and the molecular basis of complications in pregnancy. Her research on chemoresistance has also contributed to knowledge and prediction of pre-eclampsia, a pregnancy disorder that is a leading cause of maternal and perinatal complications and death.

The article, MicroRNA 376c enhances ovarian cancer cell survival by targeting activin receptor-like kinase 7: implications for chemoresistance, was published in the Journal of Cell Science.[2]

The study’s lead author, Gang Ye, is a Research Associate in Peng’s lab. Several trainees in Peng’s lab, as well as scientists in Toronto’s Sunnybrook Research Institute and in China, also participated in the project.

The research was supported by an operating grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and a mid-career award to Peng from the Ontario Women’s Health Council/CIHR. Ye was supported in part by a Fellowship from the Toronto Ovarian Cancer Research Network.

About York University

York University is the leading interdisciplinary research and teaching university in Canada. York offers a modern, academic experience at the undergraduate and graduate level in Toronto, Canada’s most international city. The third largest university in the country, York is host to a dynamic academic community of 50,000 students and 7,000 faculty and staff, as well as 200,000 alumni worldwide. York’s 10 Faculties and 28 research centres conduct ambitious, groundbreaking research that is interdisciplinary, cutting across traditional academic boundaries. This distinctive and collaborative approach is preparing students for the future and bringing fresh insights and solutions to real-world challenges. York University is an autonomous, not-for-profit corporation.

References:

1/Xu G, Zhou H, Wang Q, et. al. Activin receptor-like kinase 7 induces apoptosis through up-regulation of Bax and down-regulation of Xiap in normal and malignant ovarian epithelial cell lines. Mol Cancer Res. 2006 Apr;4(4):235-46. PubMed PMID: 16603637.

2/Ye G, Fu G, Cui S, et. al. MicroRNA 376c enhances ovarian cancer cell survival by targeting activin receptor-like kinase 7: implications for chemoresistance. J Cell Sci. 2011 Feb 1;124(Pt 3):359-68. Epub 2011 Jan 11. PubMed PMID: 21224400.

Source: York U researchers uncovering how ovarian cancer resists chemotherapy, Press Release, York University, March 2, 2011.


New Study Shows Four-Year Window for Early Detection of Ovarian Cancer

A new study by Howard Hughes Medical Institute researchers shows that most early stage ovarian tumors exist for years at a size that is a thousand times smaller than existing tests can detect reliably.  But the researchers say their findings also point to new opportunities for detecting ovarian cancer—a roughly four-year window during which most tumors are big enough to be seen with a microscope, but have not yet spread.

Tiny Early-Stage Ovarian Tumors Define Early Detection Challenge

Currently available tests detect ovarian cancer when it is about the size of the onion in the photograph. To reduce ovarian cancer mortality by 50 percent, an early detection test would need to be able to reliably detect tumors the size of the peppercorn. (Photo Source:  Patrick O. Brown, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, Research News Release, July 28, 2009)

Currently available tests detect ovarian cancer when it is about the size of the onion in the photograph. To reduce ovarian cancer mortality by 50 percent, an early detection test would need to be able to reliably detect tumors the size of the peppercorn. (Photo Source: Patrick O. Brown, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, Research News Release, July 28, 2009)

A new study by Howard Hughes Medical Institute researchers shows that most early stage ovarian tumors exist for years at a size that is a thousand times smaller than existing tests can detect reliably.

But the researchers say their findings also point to new opportunities for detecting ovarian cancer—a roughly four-year window during which most tumors are big enough to be seen with a microscope, but have not yet spread.

“Our work provides a picture of the early events in the life of an ovarian tumor, before the patient knows it’s there,” says Howard Hughes Medical Institute researcher Patrick O. Brown. “It shows that there is a long window of opportunity for potentially life-saving early detection of this disease, but that the tumor spreads while it is still much too small to be detected by any of the tests that have been developed or proposed to date.”

According to the American Cancer Society, some 15,000 women in the United States and 140,000 women worldwide die from ovarian cancer each year. The vast majority of these deaths are from cancers of the serous type, which are usually discovered only after the cancer has spread.

“Instead of typically detecting these cancers at a very advanced stage, detecting them at an early stage would be enormous in terms of saving lives,” says Brown, who is at Stanford University School of Medicine. Early detection would enable surgeons to remove a tumor before it spreads, he adds.

The article—co-authored by Chana Palmer of the Canary Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on early cancer detection—was published July 28, 2009, in the open access journal PLoS Medicine.

“Like almost everything with cancer … the more closely you look at the problem, the harder it looks,” Brown says. “That’s not to say that I don’t believe it’s a solvable problem. It’s just a difficult one.” — Patrick O. Brown, M.D. Ph.D.

Patrick O. Brown, M.D. Ph.D., Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, Stanford University School of Medicine

Patrick O. Brown, M.D. Ph.D., Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, Stanford Univ. School of Medicine

“Like almost everything with cancer … the more closely you look at the problem, the harder it looks,” Brown says. “That’s not to say that I don’t believe it’s a solvable problem. It’s just a difficult one.”

In the quest to develop early detection methods for ovarian cancer, Brown says, science hasn’t had a firm grasp on its target. So he and Palmer took advantage of published data on ovarian tumors to generate a better understanding of how the cancer progresses in its earliest stages.

The team analyzed data on serous-type ovarian tumors that were discovered when apparently healthy women at high genetic [BRCA1 gene mutation] risk for ovarian cancer had their ovaries and fallopian tubes removed prophylactically. Most of the tumors were microscopic in size; they were not detected when the excised tissue was examined with the naked eye.

The analysis uncovered a wealth of unexplored information. Thirty-seven of the early tumors had been precisely measured when they were excised – providing new details about the size of the tumors when they were developing prior to intervention, Brown says. By extrapolating from this “occult” size distribution to the size distribution of larger, clinically evident tumors, the researchers were able to develop a model of how the tumors grew and progressed. “We are essentially trying to build a story for how these tumors progress that fits the data,” Brown explains.

Among the study’s findings:

  • Serous ovarian tumors exist for at least four years before they spread.
  • The typical serous cancer is less than three millimeters across for 90 percent of this “window of opportunity for early detection.”
  • These early tumors are twice as likely to be in the fallopian tubes as in the ovaries.
  • To cut mortality from this cancer in half, an annual early-detection test would need to detect tumors five millimeters in diameter or less – about the size of a black peppercorn and less than a thousandth the size at which these cancers are typically detected today.

Brown’s lab is now looking for ways to take advantage of that window of opportunity to detect the microscopic tumors and intervene before the cancer spreads.

One strategy the laboratory is pursuing is to examine tissues near the ovaries, in the female reproductive tract, for protein or other molecular markers that could signify the presence of cancer. Brown says answering another question might also prove helpful: whether there is any reliable flow of material from the ovaries and fallopian tubes through the uterus and cervix into the vagina—material that might be tested for a specific cancer marker.

Despite science’s broad understanding of cancer at a molecular level, it has been challenging to identify simple molecular markers that signal the presence of early disease. One current blood marker, CA-125, has proven useful in monitoring later-stage ovarian cancer, but it has not been helpful for early detection. So Brown’s lab is also looking for biomarkers that are present only in ovarian tumors and not in healthy cells, instead of relying on tests that look for unusually high levels of a molecule that is part of normal biology (like CA-125).

The researchers are doing extensive sequencing of all messenger RNA molecules (which carry information for the production of specific proteins) in ovarian cancer cells, searching for evidence of proteins in these cells that would never be found in non-cancer cells. These variant molecules could be produced as a result of chromosome rearrangements—when the genome is cut and spliced in unusual ways—in ovarian cancers. “It’s a long shot,” says Brown, “but it’s important enough to try.”

Source: Tiny Early-Stage Ovarian Tumors Define Early Detection Challenge, Research News, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, July 29, 2009 [summarizing Brown PO, Palmer C, 2009 The Preclinical Natural History of Serous Ovarian Cancer: Defining the Target for Early Detection. PLoS Med 6(7): e1000114. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1000114].