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New tool to investigate the early stages of ovarian cancer

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by Cancer Research UK | News

5 July 2005

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Scientists in Japan may have found a way to unlock the ‘black box’ of early molecular changes that can lead to ovarian cancer.

The team’s research, published today in the British Journal of Cancer, details the first human ovarian cell line capable of multiplying repeatedly in the laboratory without accumulating genetic damage.

The cell line will enable scientists to model the poorly understood initial stages of ovarian cancer more reliably. It is hoped this will help open up new avenues of research for the development of treatments and preventions. It may also offer clues that will help diagnose the disease earlier.

Ovarian cancer is one of the most difficult cancers to treat successfully, mainly because it is rarely caught early. There are no obvious symptoms and, unlike cervical, breast and bowel cancer, there is presently no proven effective screening programme that can catch the disease early or indicate pre-cancerous or early changes.

Each year in the UK 6,900 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The majority of cases are diagnosed at a late stage, and five year survival rates are correspondingly low.

Until now, the human cell lines that researchers have used to model the progression of ovarian cancer in the laboratory have been of limited use because they quickly accumulate genetic damage that is unrepresentative of the development of the disease in patients.

To create the new cell line, the scientists injected healthy ovarian epithelial cells, with a virus containing proteins and an enzyme called telomerase. The proteins enabled the cells to divide repeatedly, giving the team five ‘immortal’ cell lines. When the lines were examined under the microscope, they found that, in the line called HOSE1-E7/hTERT, the telomerase had stabilised the cell chromosomes, preventing the accumulation of genetic damage.

One of the researchers, Professor Hidetaka Katabuchi, of the Faculty of Medical and Pharmaceutical Sciences, Kumamoto University, says: “Little is understood about the complicated molecular damage that takes place in the early stages of ovarian cancer because there hasn’t been a reliable way to model the changes that occur.

“But our new cell line is like an aeroplane’s flight recorder, or ‘black box’, recording all the damage for scientists to ‘play back’ and find out what has gone wrong.”

Professor John Toy, Medical Director of Cancer Research UK, which owns the British Journal of Cancer, says: “It’s heartening to make headway when investigating a disease like ovarian cancer which is difficult to treat successfully unless caught early. Hopefully, being able to model the progression of the disease in the laboratory more reliably will open up new avenues for earlier diagnosis and the development of more effective treatments.”


For media enquiries, please contact Sophy Gould at the Cancer Research UK press office on 020 7061 8318 or, out of hours, the duty press officer on 07050 264 059