What is happening with our research in 2021?

01 March 2021
Professor Ahmed Oxford

As we enter Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, it is a good time to reflect on and share the progress of the amazing research we fund, thanks to you. 

Ovarian Cancer Action raises awareness, funds much needed research, and gives a voice to all those affected by the disease driven by a clear vision - a world where no woman dies of ovarian cancer. Since 2006, Ovarian Cancer Action has funded £12.3 million of research projects: more than any other ovarian cancer charity in the UK. We fund research that focuses on the prevention, early detection, and treatment of ovarian cancer because improvements in each of these three areas will transform how long and how well women will live.

Despite the challenges and setbacks that the last year has brought, our researchers are continuing to work hard to find the breakthroughs that will improve outcomes for women affected by ovarian cancer. Find out more about the projects we’re funding – the next generation of research that will prevent ovarian cancer, catch it early, and treat it effectively. 

How can we support women most at risk of ovarian cancer?

Dr James Flanagan, from Imperial College London, wants to understand how lifestyle factors and environmental exposures change the way our genes work. By understanding these epigenetic patterns, we can use this information to provide risk assessments to help women make better informed decisions for preventative measures. Dr Flanagan has made significant progress with the project so far. As well as identifying parts of DNA involved in ovarian cancer risk, the team have found a new part of DNA that has unusual activity in patients before they are diagnosed with ovarian cancer. They are now working to confirm this finding, which could lead to improved ovarian cancer risk prediction models to give women and their GPs better information to prevent and earlier diagnose ovarian cancer. They have also found evidence the oral contraceptive pill does cause protective epigenetic changes and want to now understand how this influences ovarian cancer risk.

Dr Jon Krell, from Imperial College London, is working to understand how we can find those most at genetic risk of ovarian cancer, and prevent them from developing it in the first place. His team has already designed an ovarian cancer risk calculator – a scoring system that estimates a person’s chance of developing ovarian cancer based on a range of lifestyle and genetic factors, such as whether they carry a BRCA gene mutation. Alongside the calculator, Jon is developing a way to help doctor–patient conversations around ovarian cancer risk, and support patients as they make decisions to find out or reduce their risk if it’s high. Their goal is to find the best way to help generations of women understand their personal level of ovarian cancer risk and what they can do about it. Jon is currently recruiting participants into the study and we will have initial results to share in the next year. 

Is it possible to screen for ovarian cancer?

Professor Ahmed Ahmed, from the University of Oxford, is working to better understand how ovarian cancer starts in order to develop the world’s first ovarian cancer screening tool. Professor Ahmed is already making several exciting breakthroughs with his research - in more areas than one. His team has found six new types of fallopian tube cells that are the cells of origin for the majority of ovarian cancers. They showed that these normal fallopian tube cells are mirrored into six ovarian cancer subtypes, which gives us a clue to how these cancers start and could lead to the development of new individualised treatments. The scientists dubbed this new way of categorising ovarian cancer cells as the ‘Oxford Classification of Carcinoma of the Ovary’ or ‘Oxford Classic’ for short. The team have also confirmed a particular subtype that has poorer outcomes which currently available treatments are not effective for. This discovery will potentially lead to clinical trials to develop specific treatments for women with this type of ovarian cancer. We are excited to see what Professor Ahmed’s team discovers next, which will help us in our goal of more women surviving ovarian cancer. 

How can we find more effective treatments for women with ovarian cancer?

Professor Bob Brown was looking into why some ovarian tumours develop resistance to chemotherapy, and if there is a way to predict which patients may not respond to treatment with existing therapies. He has made great progress by developing a potential new treatment to prevent tumours becoming resistant to chemotherapy. Ovarian Cancer Action’s funding has now finished for this project and it has received funding to move to the next exciting stage, preparing the treatment for clinical trials in the next 12 months. A successful treatment to prevent chemotherapy resistance will be a significant breakthrough in improving survival rates, and we look forward to seeing the progress of the clinical trials, which if successful will mean the treatment will be finally able to reach patients.

Professor Iain McNeish and his team are working to understand why some ovarian cancer tumours are particularly aggressive. Around 20–25% of women with ovarian cancer have tumours that contain mutations in a gene called PTEN. The mutation leads to rapid tumour growth and influences the immune system to enable it to thrive, which means these patients have much worse outcomes. So far, the team has found strong evidence that immune cells called macrophages are key for growth of these types of tumors. They have also found a particular cell signal pathway is enhanced in PTEN mutations. These findings will help towards potentially informing translation into better treatments for these types of cancers. 

As well as the fantastic progress of our current research projects looking into better treatments, we are starting two more projects this month that will look to find new and effective immunotherapies for ovarian cancer. Professor Graham Cook from the University of Leeds and Professor Ahmed Ahmed will be looking at how the immune system can be boosted to help kill cancer, look out for our blog posts covering new exciting research later this month. 

You can sign up to the Ovarian Cancer Action Research Network here