Dr James Flanagan is a researcher at the Ovarian Cancer Action Research Centre. Here he tells us about his work on ovarian cancer risk and prevention.
Most ovarian cancers are diagnosed late and, as a result, many women still die from this disease. Current screening methods are often not sensitive enough to detect the disease in its early stages. Therefore, the best chance to stop women from dying from ovarian cancer, and something that I believe very strongly, is we should aim to prevent it from developing in the first place.
We propose that by identifying the women at highest risk of developing ovarian cancer they may make the right informed decisions regarding different preventive measures.
My research aims to understand how lifestyle factors can cause the biological changes that can lead to increased risk of ovarian cancer. Epigenetics is an area of biology that describes the modifiable changes in gene regulation that does not involve changes in the DNA sequence.
Epigenetic patterns in normal cell functioning explains why different cells in the body, that have the same DNA, can become different cell types such as those in the liver, brain, or ovaries. In cancer cells the epigenetic patterns are very different to normal cells.
We have discovered that many known cancer risk factors can change epigenetic patterns. My Ovarian Cancer Action research project will test whether any of these epigenetic risk factors can improve our ability to determine who will get ovarian cancer and who will not.
What I find really exciting scientifically about this project is that for the first time we have the technology to have an unprecedented view of the epigenetic patterns in the whole of the genome – 16 million different parts of the genome – rather than the 2% that we could look at with previous technologies.
For patients, and women in the general population, we are getting closer to having an appropriate test to establish an individual’s risk of developing ovarian cancer.