Trying to crack the cancer code

Ovarian cancer is one of the deadliest types, and a major factor in its lethality is a lack of early detection and targeted treatments.

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Caroline Ford, targeting specific genes in the hunt for an endometrial cancer treatment. Credit: STA

Caroline Ford, a leading researcher in cancer cell biology at the University of New South Wales in Australia, leads a team that is looking to address these issues, working with an consortium of researchers around the world.

This team has identified two genes usually only present during early development, called ROR1 and ROR2, which are being exploited by the cancer cells to promote metastasis, or the rapid growth and spread of tumours.

Ford says the hypothesis is that by silencing these genes through drug treatments, the cancer’s progress could be frozen.

“In the USA, they have just completed a phase one clinical trial among patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, which has shown that targeting ROR1 with a drug called Cirmtuzumab appears to halt progression of the disease,” she says.

“We are working hard to establish a clinical trial here in Australia, to gain insights into how this same treatment may slow the growth and spread of ovarian cancer, too.”

Ford explains that the treatment could also open pathways to tackle other types of gynaecological cancers, such as endometrial – which is more common than ovarian, but overall less deadly.

“Even though it kills fewer people, around 20% of patients have an aggressive form of disease and have severely limited options for treatment,” she says.

“For those with a less aggressive type of endometrial cancer, the treatment is more often than not a hysterectomy, which still means they must undergo major invasive surgery.”

Ford points out that there is very little research into endometrial cancer – a not uncommon state for women’s health issues.

“Female researchers are usually the ones to lead research in to women’s health issues, and the gender bias of funding means that there is often a gap in our knowledge,” she says.

“This means we not only struggle with a lack of research, but there is also a lack of awareness we need to address too.”

When it comes to the general public, Ford encourages all women to be open to seeking help from a GP if something is not quite right.

“Often women present with symptoms that they have had for months, or even years,” she explains.

“I hope that through our work we can make it easier for women to be tested for gynaecological cancers, and that as a society we can remove the awkwardness and stigma that prevents women seeking medical advice.”

Ford says there are some great online resources available, such as the Cancer Australia website, for women to learn more.

Caroline Ford is among 30 Superstars of STEM featured in this weekly series prepared by Science & Technology Australia (STA) – to learn more about the program, visit the STA website.

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