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Six steps forward we've made in ovarian cancer treatment

Over the last few decades, our research into ovarian cancer – one of the most common cancers affecting women in the UK – has led to discoveries which have had a major impact on its treatment. Today, this research is giving women with ovarian cancer a better quality of life and more time with their loved ones. Here are six of our discoveries.

During this year's Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, Agnes Steed talks about her experience of having ovarian cancer and the importance of more research

Chemotherapy creators

In the 1950s, we became the first in Europe to discover and develop chemotherapeutic agents. Since then, we have helped create kinder chemotherapies that are still effective, but have milder side-effects.

For example, we discovered the chemotherapy drug carboplatin, which is a mainstay of standard treatment for ovarian cancer today.

Better genetic testing

Two so-called BRCA genes – or breast cancer genes – were discovered in the 1990s. Our researchers found BRCA2, which represented a very significant step forward in our understanding of breast cancer.

Mutations to the BRCA genes have since been linked to other cancers, including ovarian cancer.

This work and other, later studies laid the foundation for testing for mutations to the BRCA genes, which is now recommended as standard for many women treated for ovarian cancer on the NHS.

PARP inhibitors

Our research underpinned the development of a class of targeted drugs called PARP inhibitors, which we have shown are particularly effective at treating cancers with mutations to the BRCA genes – including ovarian cancer.

Scientists at the ICR including Professors Alan Ashworth, Andrew Tutt and Chris Lord have played a major role in the science underpinning the discovery and development of these drugs – and in particular one called olaparib.

This drug is now available on the NHS to treat advanced, chemotherapy-resistant ovarian cancer in women who inherit mutations in one of the BRCA genes.

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Liquid biopsies

The ICR is an international leader in the development of ‘liquid biopsies’ – blood tests that detect traces of cancer circulating round the body and tell researchers how a cancer is changing.

Researchers including Professor Nick Turner have led studies showing these liquid biopsies can detect changes more quickly, simply and less invasively than standard tests like traditional biopsies and scans.

One recent study, led by our researchers in collaboration with colleagues at The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust and The Memorial Sloan Kettering Centre in New York, showed a new liquid biopsy can detect changes to mutated BRCA genes in ovarian cancers – as an early warning that they are becoming drug resistant.

Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and ovarian cancer

A long-running clinical trial led by researchers at the ICR and our partner hospital, The Royal Marsden, showed that women with the commonest type of ovarian cancer can safely take hormone replacement therapy (HRT).

The relationship between HRT and cancers of different types, including ovarian cancer, has been the subject of many detailed studiesThis trial showed that short-term use is safe and may even be beneficial in women who are undergoing ovarian cancer treatment.

HRT use is an important consideration for patients, because treatment begins the menopause in women yet to undergo it, and the symptoms can be especially severe.

Promising new drug

Dr Udai Banerji is leading a team that is developing a new, targeted drug for ovarian cancer that works in a different way to any other existing drug, and was discovered at the ICR.

Initial results from the first trial of this experimental drug – called BTG945 – made a big impact at one of the world’s biggest cancer conferences last year, showing that the drug was not only safe but had highly promising signs of effectiveness.

It’s rare for a drug to show such positive results at this early stage.


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