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First signs of ovarian cancer can be spotted decades before diagnosis

06 February 2020
Cancerous cell

New research published in Nature indicates that the first signs of cancer can be detected many years before diagnosis, even in apparently healthy tissue.

The work was carried out over ten years as part of the Pan-Cancer Analysis of Whole Genomes project and looked at more than 2,500 tumours and 38 cancer types – making it the most comprehensive study of cancer genetics to date.

While human cells undergo billions of mutations, only a small number of them, called driver mutations, lead to cancer. The researchers looked at how many times a single change, or driver mutation, had been replicated and copied across chromosomes. The findings have enabled them to identify some of the common genetic changes that turn healthy cells into cancer cells.

These changes were seen to occur 'particularly early' in ovarian cancer – on average ten to 20 years before diagnosis, and in some cases as long as 50 years. 

This research is very promising as it is clear that early diagnosis is the key to improving survival in ovarian cancer. There are around 7,500 new ovarian cancer cases diagnosed each year, with almost 6 in 10 women diagnosed at a late stage, when the disease is more difficult to treat.

It is hoped that this new knowledge about the origins of tumours will lead to the development of new tools and therapies to detect ovarian cancer earlier, develop more targeted therapies and treat patients more successfully.

Marie-Claire Platt, Head of Public Affairs and Research at Ovarian Cancer Action said, “Finding ovarian cancer before it develops is the key to developing a successful screening tool that will save lives. These results highlight how important it is for us to invest in research to detect these pre-cancerous changes and develop a practical test that can be used across the NHS.”


Professor Ahmed Ahmed and his team at the University of Oxford are developing a test to detect ovarian cancer at its earliest stages. Find out more about this research here.

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