September 21, 2017

A Tradition of Hope

Receiving a diagnosis of ovarian cancer is, without a doubt, terrifying. But when a patient is admitted to Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC for treatment, a bit of that fear recedes. That’s because she knows her treatment will be backed by clinical excellence and the ground-breaking research at Magee-Womens Research Institute (MWRI). The institute’s presence is felt throughout the treatment process, as MWRI is the first and largest institute dedicated solely to women’s health and its focus on ovarian cancer goes back more than 25 years.

Behind every passionate doctor at the hospital is an equally passionate researcher at MWRI. As a patient meets with a gynecologic oncologist at her hospital bedside, our first-rate scientists are working tirelessly in the lab, conducting studies, running clinical trials, and more – all in the pursuit of better understanding ovarian cancer and its origins and finding new treatment options to help her get healthy again.

Thanks to these scientific efforts, the hospital’s team of gynecologic oncologists have a comprehensive array of treatment methods ready at their fingertips.

Ovarian Cancer

Maintaining such a persistent focus on ovarian cancer is crucial for women’s health. Though the disease doesn’t get much media attention, it’s the fifth leading cause of death among women, a statistic that’s largely due to two major factors. First, the ovaries are small – almond-sized – and their location makes them difficult to examine in a routine gynecological exam. Second, many of ovarian cancer’s symptoms – such as bloating, indigestion, nausea, changes in appetite, constipation, and fatigue – can be easily mistaken for other health issues.

Complicating matters further, these symptoms often don’t appear until later stages of the disease, when the tumor’s growth places pressure on the bladder and rectum. Consequently, only about 19% of ovarian cancer is diagnosed in the early stages. Catching the disease early is currently the best bet for survival. When the disease is detected at Stage 1, the 5-year survival rate is 90%. But when detection is at Stage 3 or 4, the 5-year survival rate drops to 40%. Though these numbers are alarming, there still isn’t a reliable screening method for the disease.

But ovarian cancer’s threat is far from new. In 1975, more than four decades ago, there were roughly 16 new cases of ovarian cancer in every 100,000 women. Meanwhile, the death rate for ovarian cancer was more than 60%. Flash forward 40 years later and new cases have dropped to 11.4 per 100,000 women, but the death rate remains high, at more than 61%.

In this year alone, the American Cancer Society estimates 22,440 women will receive a new diagnosis of ovarian cancer. Sadly, the society also predicts 14,080 will die from it.

It’s because of projections like these that researchers at MWRI work tirelessly to understand ovarian cancer in all aspects, including the problems that can lead to cancer in the first place.

Endometriosis

One condition that can lead to ovarian cancer is endometriosis, a condition that affects approximately 10% of the adult female population. Endometriosis is typically a benign condition that causes the uterine lining to grow outside of the uterus, often on the ovaries. While usually harmless, it can cause infertility, extreme pain, and in about 3% of cases, ovarian cancer. While that may seem like a small percentage, endometriosis-derived ovarian cancer accounts for 20-30% of all ovarian cancer in the United States.

To make ovarian endometrioma even more challenging, there’s no good diagnostic test to catch it. Researchers at MWRI have dedicated themselves to understanding why endometriosis forms in some women but not others, and how a woman’s immune system works to halt the disease.

In addition to examining endometriosis and the body’s natural immune response, other researchers have examined why endometriosis leads to cancer and how endometriosis responds to immunotherapies.

Pushing even further, Magee researchers have discovered information in microRNA (tiny bits of genetic material) which may distinguish between healthy women, endometriosis patients, and patients with endometriosis-related ovarian cancer. This finding may eventually help doctors at Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC spot endometriosis or ovarian cancer in early stages.

Immunotherapy

In recent years, immunotherapy drugs have been released for cancers such as melanoma, prostate cancer, and lung cancer, but there has been little work to develop an immunotherapy product for ovarian cancer. In fact, outside of Magee, few new treatment methods have been developed for ovarian cancer in the last three decades.

MWRI has laid the foundation for finding the most effective combination of chemotherapy and immune boosters. By administering a mix of chemotherapy and immune boosters directly onto the cancer cells, the goal is to wipe out the cancer with the body’s help.

Hormone Therapies

Magee-Womens Research Institute has also uncovered potential ovarian cancer treatment options while studying breast cancer. While estrogen is often used in treating certain breast cancers, a collaborative study between Magee, University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, University of Michigan, Fox Chase Cancer Center, and Roswell Park Cancer Institute found that estrogen receptors are also active in certain types of ovarian cancer. The cancer’s growth could potentially be stopped by using antiestrogens to block estrogen signaling.

By researching this further, doctors may someday better apply hormone treatments to ovarian cancer treatments.

Combined Therapies

Thanks to these and other studies at MWRI, doctors at Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC can give ovarian cancer patients more than a fighting chance through personalized combination therapies in order to ensure the best success rate for each patient.

With this personalized approach, doctors develop an aggressive treatment plan while keeping the patient’s quality of life top of mind.

Preparing for Long-term Success

Magee-Womens Research Institute and Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC are dedicated to advancing ovarian cancer knowledge by inspiring brilliant young scientists and medical professionals. Young fellows are mentored and educated to understand the current field of ovarian cancer while being inspired to take research to the next level. By both working towards breakthroughs for today and tomorrow, Magee researchers heal patients today while paving the way to eradicating ovarian cancer in the future.

Today, when a patient visits Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC, she joins a team of knowledgeable professionals dedicated to her recovery. With the innovation of MWRI just across the street, the hospital is primed to give each patient the customized treatment she deserves.

To contribute to MWRI efforts in combating ovarian cancer, consider donating to the institute directly.