Local researchers look to help patients discover ovarian cancer sooner

Ovarian cancer is still the leading cause of death due to gynecologic cancers, and researchers around the globe are working to try and find a way to stop this insidious disease, which is often found too late to treat.

That includes researchers at the Notre Dame-Indiana University School of Medicine in South Bend, who believe they have uncovered a key element in how ovarian cancer spreads.

Before coming to the Harper Cancer Institute, a partnership between Notre Dame and the Indiana University School of Medicine, Dr. Sharon Stack spent the last 20 years at Duke and the University of Missouri, studying how ovarian cancer spreads.

Rebecca Burkhalter is a visiting scientist, also from the University of Missouri, and Dr. Stack is convinced the work being done in this lab has uncovered a key in how ovarian cancer spreads.

Dr. Stack says, "The novel finding from Rebecca's work is that it activates a process called WNT signaling…WNT signaling is very well known to be problem in colorectal cancers. We suspect that WNT signaling is responsible for that migration and is responsible for the ability of these cells to move from native space into new spaces."

If Burkhalter's basic findings are true, it could be a big breakthrough.

"So, while WNT signaling hasn't been perceived as a target in most forms of ovarian cancer in the past, her research suggests those drugs being used to target WNT signaling may actually be useful in combating ovarian cancer metastasis."

Rebecca also developed a novel approach she says she borrowed from a Notre Dame aerospace engineer, testing her cells floating in a bag, much like the peroneal sack, rather than a flat petri dish.

Burkhalter says, "So, we add this culture media that provides amino acids, sugars and things that allow the cells to continue to live, and then we add the cells themselves also to the sack." {25:06}

Rebecca says Harper research is unique in other ways.

"We have multiple researchers with different backgrounds, who are all in one building and are able to collaborate with ideas. We've been able to integrate people from engineering, from mathematics, from the physics department, and get their input on things that may or may not be relevant to our model systems."

While their research is basic, Rebecca, who lost an aunt to ovarian cancer, has high hopes for the future.

"I definitely believe that diagnosis is going to become more viable. I don't see that being something that takes 20 years, I see that as something that takes probably five years."

In the meantime, she will continue studying cancer cells, and she hopes that one day soon, what she is mixing in this tiny bag may provide monumental answers that will save the lives of tens of thousands of women every year.

One of the reasons ovarian cancer is so deadly is that it is hard to diagnose, and its symptoms are common among many women.

An easy way to remember the signs is using the word "BEAT".

B stands for persistent bloating, E if you are eating less and feeling fuller, A if you have abdominal pain, and T if you have trouble with your bladder.
Remember to talk with your doctor if you have any questions.

For more information about the research, click here.

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