UK researchers improve ovarian cancer detection test

In collaboration with the Press Association

Measuring changes in the level of a protein in the blood detects more cases of ovarian cancer than a single measurement on its own, according to the research team behind a large screening trial.

"This work still needs to be tested in women to see if it can save lives” - Dr James Brenton, Cancer Research UK

The new method, detailed in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, appears to be able to detect twice as many women with the disease than existing techniques, and could ultimately lead to routine ovarian screening. 
But experts cautioned that the overall results of the trial need analysing before they will know for sure whether screening can reduce deaths from ovarian cancer.

Levels of the CA125 protein have long been used to test for ovarian cancer, but converting this knowledge into a reliable screening test has proved elusive.

The team, led by researchers at University College London (UCL), developed a calculation of ovarian cancer risk based on changing levels of the protein in women’s blood.

They used the method on samples taken from women on the UK Collaborative Trial of Ovarian Cancer Screening (UKCTOCS) – a 14-year-long trial of more than 200,000 UK women.

The test correctly identified more than eight out of 10 (86 per cent) women with ovarian cancer. 

The conventional test, which relies on a fixed cut-off point for CA125 levels to detect the disease, generally only identifies about four in 10 women, the researchers say. 

Dr James Brenton, an ovarian cancer expert at Cancer Research UK, said: “A blood test to find women at risk of ovarian cancer is an exciting prospect, but this work still needs to be tested in women to see if it can save lives.”

Many symptoms of ovarian cancer - like persistent bloating, pain in the pelvis and lower stomach, difficulty eating - are also associated with other more common conditions. This makes the disease particularly difficult to diagnose.

Dr Brenton added: “By tracking how the levels of the CA125 protein change over time we might have an early signal to detect tumours. Ovarian cancer is particularly hard to spot at an early stage so it’s vital that we find ways to diagnose the cancer sooner.”

Professor Usha Menon, trial co-ordinator at UCL commented: “There is currently no national screening programme for ovarian cancer, as research to date has been unable to provide enough evidence that any one method would improve early detection of tumours.

“These results are therefore very encouraging. They show that use of an early detection strategy based on an individual’s CA125 profile significantly improved cancer detection compared to what we’ve seen in previous screening trials.”

The team evaluated 46,237 women on the trial whose CA125 levels were analysed once a year, and a computer algorithm was used to interpret their risk of ovarian cancer.

The full results of the trial will be published later this year and should indicate whether this method will help save more lives from the disease.