Many lives may be saved by new blood test for ovarian cancer

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A new blood test which has the potential to save many lives has been developed to detect ovarian cancer, a disease known as the silent killer because it is so difficult to identify.

Ovarian cancer affects one woman in seventy and kills three quarters of sufferers. The new test spots raised levels of proteins associated with the disease and the U.S. researchers who developed the test say that it has the potential to save lives by allowing identification at a stage when the cancer can be effectively treated.

The new test was developed by a team of scientists led by Gil Mor, from the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut, and relies on four marker proteins, leptin, prolactin, osteopontin and the insulin-like growth factor II, and successfully identified cancer with 95 per cent accuracy in a test group of more than 200 women, but that rate is still not precise enough to be used in national screening programmes.

Each of the proteins had previously been suggested as a possible cancer biomarker. In the study, however, no protein on its own could completely distinguish cancer patients from healthy participants.

Ovarian cancer is difficult to detect because the ovaries are buried deep in the pelvis and unlike a breast lump, there is often nothing to feel until the tumour has expanded into the abdomen. Some women may experience slight symptoms such as abdominal distension, bloating or vaginal bleeding, but these are often put down to other common conditions such as constipation, indigestion or irritable bowel syndrome.

Ovarian cancer is the fourth most common form of the disease after breast, bowel and lung cancer, and accounts for 5 to 6 per cent of all cancer deaths in women. Treatment involves surgery to remove as much of the cancer as possible, then chemotherapy. Improvements in surgical techniques and chemotherapy drugs mean that the median life expectancy has risen from less than 12 months after diagnosis 20 years ago to more than three years today.

Dr Mor says the new test has the potential to save many lives by offering the chance of early intervention, of the 7,000 women who have the cancer diagnosed in Britain every year almost 4,700 do not survive.

The researchers state that the test will need to be improved before it could be used for national screening, which requires an accuracy of at least 99.6 per cent.

The findings are reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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