Simple blood test can improve ovarian cancer diagnosis

By Hudson Institute communications

Researchers have developed a simple blood test that measures the body’s own immune response to improve diagnosis of ovarian cancer.

Ovarian cancer is one of the most common gynaecologic cancers, with the highest mortality rate. About 300,000 new cases are diagnosed globally each year, with an estimated 60 percent of women dying within five years after diagnosis.

Dr Andrew Stephens and his team have developed a simple blood test to improve ovarian cancer diagnosis.
Dr Andrew Stephens

The collaborative study—involving researchers from RMIT University, Hudson Institute, Monash University, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and the University of Melbourne—found that testing for a specific immune biomarker allows clinicians to identify whether growths on the ovaries are cancerous or not, without the need for tests like MRI scans or ultrasounds.

“Our study showed that measurement of the IL-6 protein, in combination with existing clinical tests, provided high levels of accuracy in diagnosing ovarian cancer—similar to high-resolution imaging,” said Dr Andrew Stephens, Research Group Head of the Ovarian Cancer Biomarkers Research group at Hudson Institute.

“This approach could substantially improve the treatment of ovarian cancer patients, particularly in situations where high-resolution imaging equipment is not available or difficult to access.”

“Pre-operative identification of ovarian cancer—and subsequent referral to a specialist—can significantly improve outcomes for patients.”

What impact could the test have?

Senior Author and Chief Investigator, RMIT University’s Professor Magdalena Plebanski, said the test could be an important diagnostic tool for assessing suspicious ovarian growths before operations.

“Our new test is as accurate as the combined results of a standard blood test and ultrasound,” said Plebanski, a Senior National Health and Medical Research Council Fellow at RMIT.

“This is especially important for women in remote or disadvantaged communities, where under-resourced hospitals may not have access to complex and expensive equipment like ultrasound machines or MRI scanners.

“It also means patients with benign cysts identified through imaging could potentially be spared unnecessary surgeries.

“This study looked at women with advanced ovarian cancer, but we hope further research could explore the potential for adding this biomarker to routine diagnostic tests at earlier stages of the disease.”

The study used an immune marker for inflammation (IL-6) together with cancer markers to detect epithelial ovarian cancer in blood. Results were validated across two separate human trial cohorts.

“Ovarian cancer is the deadliest women’s cancer, a statistic that has not changed in 30 years,” Plebanski said.

“Every day in Australia, four women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer and three will die from the disease.

“Developing tests that are simpler and more practical may help get more women to hospital for treatment more effectively, with the hope that survival rates will improve.”

Collaborators | RMIT University, Monash University, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, and University of Melbourne, with clinical trials held at the Royal Women’s Hospital and Epworth Healthcare in Melbourne.

Funders | Women’s Cancer Fund, the Ovarian Cancer Research Foundation Inc., Australia, and the John Brunner estate.

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“Thank you Hudson Institute researchers. Your work brings such hope to all women with ovarian cancer knowing that potentially women in the future won't have to go through what we have!”

Alana Chantry