Ovarian cancer in women can now be detected early and less invasively, thanks to a research team from Northwestern University, who developed a pioneering technology. The team developed the first screening method to detect the early presence of ovarian cancer by examining cells from the neighboring cervix or uterus.
Conducting a clinical study, researchers from Northwestern and NorthShore University HealthSystem studied cells taken from the cervix or uterus from patients with ovarian cancer. Although the cells looked normal under a microscope, using partial wave spectroscopic (PWS) microscopy allowed them to view diagnostic changes within the cells.
The study included 26 women, 11 with ovarian cancer and 15 served as part of the control group. The cells taken from the cervix or uterus were placed on slides and examined using PWS microscopy. Significant increases in the disorders of the nanoarchitecture of the cells were discovered by researchers. No reliable early detection of ovarian cancer exists and the results of this study have the potential for an early non-invasive detection method. Cell samples can be taken using a swab, similar to that of a Pap smear.
"We were surprised to discover we could see diagnostic changes in cells taken from the endocervix in patients who had ovarian cancer. The advantage of nanocytology — and why we are so excited about it — is we don't need to wait for a tumor to develop to detect cancer," Vadim Backman, who developed PWS at Northwestern, said.
Using the PWS method in prior studies has also been promising in the early detection of other cancers. By examining the cells of the neighboring organs using the PWS method, detection of cancers that attack the colon, pancreas and lungs could be found early. For the colon, cell samples were taken from the rectum, for the pancreas, samples came from the duodenum (the first part of the small intestine) and for the lungs, samples were brushed from the cheek.
"The changes we have seen in cells have been identical, no matter which organ we are studying. We have stumbled upon a universal cell physiology that can help us detect difficult cancers early. If the changes are so universal, they must be very important," Backman said.
Ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of death in women in the United States and often goes undetected and is difficult to treat in its late stages. PWS microscopy could be used by doctors for cancer detection in approximately five years, if commercialized.
"This intriguing finding may represent a breakthrough that would allow personalization of screening strategies for ovarian cancer via a minimally intrusive test that could be coupled to the Pap smear," the then-director of gastroenterology research at NorthShore, Hemant K. Roy, M.D. said. Roy is now at Boston University School of Medicine and Boston Medical Center, where he is chief of gastroenterology. Findings of the study were published in the International Journal of Cancer.