Cancer Research UK scientists have discovered a gene that has the power to stop ovarian cancer developing – according to a report 1 published today.

Researchers within the new University of Edinburgh’s Cancer Research Centre found that the gene, known as OPCML, was “switched off” in almost 90 per cent of the ovarian tumours that were tested.

And experiments in the laboratory have shown that when fully functioning OPCML genes are inserted into human ovarian cancer cells tumour growth is dramatically suppressed.

Dr Hani Gabra, who led the research at Cancer Research UK’s Edinburgh oncology unit, says: “This is a very important discovery in identifying what seems to be a key tumour suppressor gene in ovarian cancer.

“We have found that these genes are frequently ‘switched off’ at very early stages of the disease and fail to make essential proteins. But when we switch these genes back on in the cancer cells tumours are suppressed.

In normal ovarian tissue, OPCML seems to prevent cells from being cancerous but defects in the gene may open the way for development of the disease.

Scientists believe it may be possible to devise drugs to mimic the effects of OPCML in order to block the growth of ovarian cancer cells.

Ovarian cancer, known as the silent killer, has no obvious symptoms in the early stages and is particularly difficult to detect. There is no effective screening procedure that can indicate pre-cancerous cells as there is in cervical and bowel cancer.

Dr Gabra believes that identifying OPCML is a vital component in the mystery that continues to surround the onset and development of ovarian cancer.

“It takes us further in the urgent quest to find a method for earlier diagnosis and treatment of ovarian cancer. We now need to work on understanding more about this gene and exactly how it works and what makes it switch off.”

Dr Grant Sellar, who also worked on the report, says: “This is an exciting development in our understanding of the early stages of ovarian cancer. Now we need to work on learning more about the function of OPCML and how it works in relation to ovarian cancer.”

Cancer Research UK’s medical director Dr John Toy says: “It is always heartening to make headway when investigating a cancer, like ovarian cancer, which is difficult to treat entirely successfully unless caught early. This work still has a long way to go in the laboratory before patients could benefit but results so far are promising.”


  1. Nature Genetics34 pp.337-343


  • The lifetime risk for a woman in England or Wales developing ovarian cancer is 1 in 48
  • Symptoms of the disease may include abdominal swelling, pain, nausea, bloating and weight loss
  • UK incidence for 1999 was 6,800 cases of which 5,569 were in England, 441 in Wales, 559 in Scotland and 191 in Northern Ireland.
  • Ninety per cent of cases and 95 per cent of deaths occur in women over the age of 45.
  • In 2000 in the UK there were 4,431 deaths from ovarian cancer: 3,909 in England and Wales, 442 in Scotland and 100 in Northern Ireland.
  • Overall there has been a decrease in the death rate from the disease but an increase in actual numbers of women dying. This is a reflection of the growth in the population at risk (i.e women over 45)
  • Five-year survival in England, Wales and Scotland is around 29 per cent. In Northern Ireland it is around 27 per cent. The best European five year survival rates are 45 per cent in Sweden.