Winter 2004

Improving diagnosis of ovarian cancer



A team of Seattle researchers, including Fred Hutchinson scientists, has identified a protein that could improve diagnosis of ovarian cancer, a disease that often goes undetected until it is advanced and difficult to cure.

Researchers found that a protein known as HE4 was more effective at distinguishing true cancers from benign ovarian disease than the only other commercially available test, which detects the presence of a protein called CA125.

HE4 is a protein that is secreted by ovarian-cancer cells into the bloodstream. Center researchers Drs. Nicole Urban and Martin McIntosh and colleagues at the Pacific Northwest Research Institute found that the HE4 test successfully identified cancer in 30 of 37 blood-serum samples from women known to have the disease. The CA125 test identified 29 cases. When used together, both biomarkers detected 33 of the 37 cancer cases. However, the number of women with benign ovarian disease who have elevated levels of HE4 is far smaller than with CA125. This indicates that the HE4 test yields fewer false-positive diagnoses.

"If the HE4 biomarker performs well in larger studies, HE4 could become a cancer-screening test that reduces the number of needless surgeries performed as a result of false-positive diagnoses," said Urban, who directs the Pacific Ovarian Cancer Research Consortium, a multi-institutional grant from the National Cancer Institute, which funded the study.

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