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Graphic: Elena Schneider/MEDILL; Image: Cory Janiak/Flickr

Northwestern University researchers have developed a new screening technique for ovarian cancer. Their findings will be published in July in the International Journal of Cancer.

Pre-screening for ovarian cancer on horizon

by Elena Schneider
Apr 25, 2013

When Erica Schmeck’s mother, Sharon, was first diagnosed with cancer five years ago, she had two 11- centimeter tumors in her ovaries.

“It was shocking because she just thought she had back pain,” said Schmeck, a 27-year-old Lake View-based freelance television and film producer. “My mother knew ovarian cancer was in the family, and told her gynecologist about it, but her gynecologist still missed it.”

Three years after her diagnosis, Sharon died at 54.

Ovarian cancer is the fifth most deadly cancer for women in the United States, partly because there is no pre-screening method to detect the disease.

But researchers at Northwestern University and NorthShore HealthSystem announced this week they have developed the first screening method by examining cells, brushed from the cervix, then analyzed under a partial wave spectroscopic microscopy, which displays the cell’s structure on the nanoscale.

“The polio vaccine eradicated polio, and we think we can do the same with cancer and two-tier screenings,” said Vadim Backman, professor of biomedical engineering at Northwestern.

He wrote an article on the new technique that will be published in the July issue of the International Journal of Cancer.

By using the partial wave spectroscopic technique, not microscopes, researchers observed precancerous mutations in the chromatin--the DNA and protein inside the nucleus of a cell. Traditional microscopes cannot examine cells on such a tiny scale, leaving these abnormal changes previously undetectable.

“You can think of it as seeing houses versus bricks,” Backman said. “We have developed a technique that allows you to look at the bricks, and even the cracks in the bricks.”

He said ovarian screenings could mimic cervical cancer screenings, becoming a part of a woman’s annual Pap smear. Then, the cells would be screened for both cervical and ovarian cancer.

“In order to actually fight cancer, we have to implement a two-tier screening strategies,” Backman said. “The first tier is the population-based test done on asymptomatic women, patient-friendly, low cost test in a primary care setting. The second tier test may be more invasive, more expensive, but just for the high-risk patients.”

The study examined cells from 26 patients, but Backman said the small numbers reflect the deadliness of the disease.

Without screenings or diagnostic tests, ovarian cancer appears in women as pain-related symptoms, often confused with back pain and aging, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Ovarian cancer advocates are cautiously excited for the possibility of pre-screenings, but say it will depend on approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“It could be an amazing, routine tool, like mammograms,” said Mary Kate Fitzgerald, a spokeswoman for Bright Pink, a Chicago-based nonprofit ovarian and breast cancer awareness group. “But it all depends on approval from the government.”

Backman said he expects the screenings to hit the market in the next five to 10 years, pending FDA approval.

Bright Pink communicates with the majority of its 50,000 supporters through social media, and Fitzgerald said the organization would employ a similar strategy if pre-screenings became available.

“We educate them on all of the available tools and encourage them to talk to their doctors,” Fitzgerald said.

But Schmeck is more hesitant to fully embrace screenings, even if they are approved.

“I think it would be something that I would slightly wean myself into,” she said. Now, she receives bi-annual ovarian check-ups, including blood tests and transvaginal ultrasounds, to monitor the presence of any tumors.

Even if the screenings failed, Schmeck said she is happy researchers are trying. “You may be disappointed when it does not work, but at least they are doing something,” she said. “They thought they had something new and not sitting and waiting.”