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In vitro models to help detect early-stage ovarian cancer

Researcher: Barbara Guinn

Location: Univeristy of Hull

2021 FRAME Innovation Grant winner Dr Barbara Guinn from the University of Hull was awarded £14,616.74 to develop a human cell line for use in early-stage ovarian cancer research.

The problem

Ovarian cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK, affecting approximately 6,500 women each year. Diagnosis tends to happen at the later stages of the disease when treatment options are limited but detecting it earlier would greatly improve the chances of effective treatment.

Some biomarkers for ovarian cancer exist, but their reliability for correct diagnosis varies. Thus, the need remains to identify a robust biomarker that can be used to screen patients non-invasively and ideally detect ovarian cancer early

There’s currently a lack of early-stage models for the disease, with most mouse ‘models’ mimicking  aggressive, late-stage forms. Furthermore, most cell lines available for research have been produced using a variety of cell types, even though 80% of all ovarian cancers develop from fallopian tube epithelial cells.

The project

Dr Barbara Guinn and her team at the University of Hull have used their innovation grant to develop a cell line that represents early-stage epithelial ovarian cancer.

The team at Hull have previously identified a small protein, which they’re calling ‘ovarian cancer protein’, that has elevated levels in the earliest stages of ovarian cancer but has very limited expression in most healthy tissues. This protein has the potential to be used as a biomarker for early diagnosis.

The research team has already shown that targeting type 2 of the protein in late-stage ovarian cancer has the potential to destroy late-stage tumour cells. This research highlighted the potential for the protein to be a target for treatment at the early-stages of the disease.

Barbara’s team have developed a fallopian tube epithelial cell line, and added the ovarian cancer protein family genes to the cells by to see whether there is any change in cell behaviour that may indicate that cancer is developing. Using a variety of techniques the cells were analysed for any changes in cell division and death rates, cell morphology (size and shape), adhesion (stickiness), invasive behaviour (movement) and changes in expression of genes and proteins.

The potential

This research has shown that the ovarian cancer protein has the ability to transform cells towards a cancer state, and ovarian cancer protein type 4 appears to have a greater effect on cell proliferation and adhesion than other ovarian cancer protein family members.

Barbara and her team are continuing to investigate the impacts of different levels of protein expression . The team hopes that further screening of ovarian cancer patient samples could lead to the ovarian cancer proteins being used as a potential biomarker and target for immunotherapy in early stages of the disease.

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