Ovarian cancer breakthrough

Assoc. Prof Orla McNally
Assoc. Prof Orla McNally, the Director of Oncology and Dysplasia at the Women's
29 May 2015 | Cancer | Research and clinical trials

Clinicians and patients from the Women’s have been involved in a world-first ovarian cancer study that reveals how deadly ovarian cancer outsmarts chemotherapy.

The breakthrough, published in the journal Nature may potentially change treatment approaches for women with high-grade serous ovarian carcinoma (HSC). HSC accounts for 70 per cent of all ovarian cancers, and 60 per cent of ovarian cancer-related deaths, claiming approximately 80,000 women globally each year.

The study, led by Professor David Bowtell from the University of Melbourne and Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, was a collaboration that included partners in the Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre [VCCC].

The Chief Executive officer of the Women’s, Dr Sue Matthews said the breakthrough highlighted the benefits of the collaboration of VCCC partners.

"This landmark research effort has been a partnership across the country and in particular, the VCCC alliance," Dr Matthews said.

"That’s the benefit of being part of a partnership of world class facilities."

The discovery used samples and data collected by the Australian Ovarian Cancer Study (AOCS) and Australian and international partners. Many patients from the Women’s were involved through the Women’s Cancer Research Centre (WCRC).

Assoc. Prof Orla McNally, Director of Oncology and Dysplasia at the Women's and associate clinical professor, University on Melbourne, thanked all the women across Australia who had contributed.

Assoc. Prof McNally was one of the Women’s four co-authors of the study, which is the largest DNA analysis of ovarian cancer in the world.

Professor Michael Quinn, from the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, University of Melbourne, is also a consultant in the Oncology and Dysplasia Unit at the Women’s. Dr Jan Pyman, is Department Head, Anatomical Pathology at the Women’s and Dr Anne Hamilton, is a medical oncologist at the Women’s and Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and associate clinical professor, University on Melbourne.

Professor Bowtell said the study revealed at least four key mechanisms by which initially vulnerable ovarian cancers go through genetic changes and become resistant to common chemotherapy.

"In two of the mechanisms, cancer cells find a way of restoring their ability to repair damaged DNA and thereby resist the effects of chemotherapy; in another, cancer cells “hijack” a genetic switch that enables them to pump chemotherapy drugs out of harm’s way," he said

"A further mechanism sees the molecular structure of the cancer tissue shift and reshape, such that sheets of ‘scar tissue’ appear to block chemotherapy from reaching its target."

HSC accounts for 70 per cent of all ovarian cancers, and 60 per cent of ovarian cancer-related deaths, claiming approximately 80,000 women globally each year.

Acting Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research), Professor Liz Sonenberg, said that important results like these testify to the foresight of the AOCS partners, when they set up a bio-specimen, clinical, genetic and epidemiological data resource for ovarian cancer researchers in 2001.

"A similar approach underpins the development of the VCCC. Close collaboration between clinicians and researchers is imperative if we want research breakthroughs to impact clinical care with optimum speed and efficacy," she said.

"Benefits of the co-location of partners in the VCCC precinct and its proximity to other neighbouring world class research and clinical institutions include the opportunities to develop and share new research resources and to augment the development of new, more effective, treatments for patients."

The VCCC building is being delivered as a public-private partnership part of the State Government’s Partnerships Victoria and is on track to be completed.

Bringing together an alliance of cancer researchers and clinicians from nine organisations in a community of practice will enable the VCCC to make an important difference in the lives of cancer patients and their families. The Victorian Life Science Computation Initiative is also in nearby Carlton providing the critical infrastructure to support researchers in handling the increasingly large data sets in biotechnological research.

Professor Jim Bishop, Director of the VCCC, said this was a prime example of the leading international cancer research that is centred in a number of sites across Melbourne.

"Bringing together the expertise of exemplary research and clinical organisations around the complex and challenging problems that cancer presents will accelerate the pace of discovery and provide better targeted, more responsive, clinical care," he said.

"We look forward to the increased collaboration that the Peter Mac’s move to Parkville will bring, and anticipate great improvements in patient care from the combined efforts of all members."