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Is it possible to screen for ovarian cancer?


Lead researcher: Professor Ahmed Ahmed

Where: Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, University of Oxford 

Theme: Early detection 

Project dates: 2018 – 2023

The earlier ovarian cancer is detected, the better chance a woman has of survival. Professor Ahmed Ahmed and his team are working to better understand how ovarian cancer starts in order to develop the world’s first ovarian cancer screening tool.

In cervical cancer, we know exactly where the pre-cancerous cells begin and how they develop over a number of years until they finally become cancer. The cervical smear test is so effective because doctors know exactly where to look, and what they are looking for. Unlocking this information for ovarian cancer is crucial to develop a screening tool to detect it at its earliest stages. Right now, the way ovarian cancer starts is unclear.

However Professor Ahmed and his team have already made a key discovery: a protein called SOX2 is far more prevalent in the Fallopian tubes of women with or at risk of ovarian cancer.

Professor Ahmed’s goal is to learn as much as possible about the role of biological markers, like SOX2, that flag the growth of ovarian cancer, and whether these markers could be used to develop a screening tool. The team will also be using state of the art technology to look at different types of cells in the Fallopian tubes and uncover how and why they become cancerous in the first place.

Where are we now?

The team have invented a new method based on artificial intelligence for analysing tiny amounts of DNA, which they will now use to pinpoint changes that occur in the Fallopian tube, where many ovarian cancers start. They have also sequenced the RNA of more than 5,000 individual Fallopian tube cells and discovered a particularly aggressive form of ovarian cancer that was previously difficult to identify.