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Medical Moment: An implantable treatment for ovarian cancer

Published: Jun. 23, 2022 at 5:33 PM EDT
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(WNDU) - Almost 20,000 women will be told they have ovarian cancer this year. Around 13,000 will die from it. It’s a hard cancer to treat.

To confirm ovarian cancer doctors will perform tests and procedures including a pelvic exam, imaging tests, such as ultrasound or CT scans of your abdomen and pelvis, and blood tests that might include organ function tests that can help determine your overall health.

A doctor might also recommend surgery because sometimes they can’t be certain of your diagnosis until you undergo surgery to remove an ovary and have it tested for signs of cancer.

Your doctor may also recommend testing a sample of your blood to look for gene changes that increase the risk of ovarian cancer. Knowing you have an inherited change in your DNA helps your doctor make decisions about your treatment plan. You may wish to share the information with your blood relatives, such as your siblings and your children, since they also may have a risk of having those same gene changes.

Once it’s confirmed that you have ovarian cancer, your doctor will use information from your tests and procedures to assign your cancer a stage. The stages of ovarian cancer range from 1 to 4, which are often indicated with Roman numerals I to IV. The lowest stage indicates that the cancer is confined to the ovaries. By stage 4, the cancer has spread to distant areas of the body.

Researchers are hoping something called ‘drug factories’ will not only kill ovarian cancer, but also transform the way we think about treating other diseases.

“I was losing a lot of weight,” said Gilda Michel. “My stomach was not getting any smaller. It was hurting a lot.”

It was worse than Michel thought.

“I had tumors in my ovaries,” Michel recalled.

Even with chemo, radiation, and surgery, for people like Michel, diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer, there’s a 50-50 chance they’ll survive it. But now, researchers at Rice University are trying out a new implantable approach.

“Have this implant actually be loaded with engineered cells that would secrete a biologic that would activate the immune system,” said Omid Veiseh, PhD, a bioengineer at Rice University.

Bioengineers implanted drug factories, the size of a pinhead, to deliver continuous, high doses of Interleukin-2, a natural compound that activates white blood cells to fight cancer.

“Where we need the drug is actually right next to the tumor,” Dr. Veiseh explained.

Preliminary studies in mice are yielding results.

“We’ve shown that in as little as six days, we see the cancer completely gone,” Dr. Veiseh said.

It eliminated the tumors in 100 percent of the animals with ovarian cancer. And when the mice were injected a second time with the cells from the same cancerous tumor, they were now protected against it.

“Which suggests that the immune cells that have learned what the cancer looks like, they can now migrate throughout the body, find and destroy the cancer, wherever it may be,” Dr. Veiseh said.

Giving survivors like Michel new hope that they will beat this deadly disease.

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