Ovarian cancer developments in the “Year of the Agent”

Monday 01 February 2021

Ovarian cancer may be one of the lesser recognised women’s cancers, but it is one of the deadliest, with only around a 40 per cent survival rate internationally after five years. Leader of the Cancer Biology Research Group and one of the co-leaders of the Mater Ovarian Cancer Research Collaborative (MOCRC). Professor John Hooper, along with clinical teams at Mater Hospital, aim to better the prognosis for the 1600 women who are diagnosed with this cancer each year in Australia.

One of the biggest issues facing women with ovarian cancer is early diagnosis. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to catch in the early stages as the most common symptom is pelvic pain, which can be indicative of a whole host of conditions from cysts, endometriosis, cancers and nerve issues and is often dismissed as a normal part of women’s lives.

“It’s not an easy diagnosis, and it’s not something that is often tested for right away as pelvic pain can be quite nebulous,” said Professor Hooper.

In 2020 Professor Hooper and his team were recipients of a large grant from the Federal Government’s Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) to continue their vital research. The MRFF support is funding a phase one clinical trial targeting a protein that is enriched on the surface of ovarian cancer cells. The trial will answer the question about whether that protein could be an effective target for better diagnosis or treatment of epithelial ovarian cancer—which is the most common type of ovarian tumour—and develops in the lining of the ovaries, peritoneum and fallopian tubes.

“The agent we’re developing has significant potential as a triage tool to assess the spread of ovarian cancer. If the cancer lights up to this agent at a PET Ct scan, there may also be the opportunity to use the agent with a cytotoxic drug to begin treatment.”

“We’re calling this the Year of the Agent,” says Professor Hooper. “We are working to develop the agent to clinical grade this year—that's our goal—to get the protein made, get the toxicology validated and get it ready to be injected into patients. We have to get all the clinic and laboratory testing done this year so that we can start clinical trials.”

Another project underway is focusing on disrupting the metabolism of cancer cells; the team has discovered a way to interfere with the way cancer cells draw energy sources in Clear Cell Ovarian Cancers—a subtype of EOC—and limit their growth and ability to metastasise through the body. There have also been advances in research trialling a repurposed breast cancer treatment drug in ovarian cancer patients to good effect.

“Despite the less than ideal current survival rate, I’m hoping we can reach 60 per cent in the not too distant future and climb even further as new genetic tests, improved therapies and the effects of increased awareness leading to earlier diagnosis continue to benefit patients.

“We’re very lucky here at Mater to have such an incredible gynaecological oncology hospital team working alongside us, especially Dr Lewis Perrin, Dr Rohan Lourie and Dr Cath Shannon, without whom we wouldn’t be able to deliver this care to the patients who need it most.”

We’ve also been blessed by very generous donors including “Cocktails for a Cure”, “Katherine’s High Tea”, the Celma Mastry Foundation and the Teal Brick Road Long Lunch, who have each been long-term supporters of MOCRC and essential for us moving our research discoveries into clinical trials in ovarian cancer patients.

Ovarian cancer research could use your support. Find out how you can fundraise your own way to support research done at Mater.