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Mater researchers determined to create personalised treatment option for ovarian cancer

How prevalent, and deadly, is ovarian cancer in Australia?

In Australia each year, around 1500 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer and more than 1000 of these women will eventually die from the disease.

If you, or someone you know, have been touched by ovarian cancer in your family, then you will know that a lot of what we know about this disease is a mystery.

There are often no obvious signs of ovarian cancer, and a woman’s symptoms can be vague and hard to detect—as a result, many cases are diagnosed only at an advanced stage when their cancer has spread from their ovaries into other parts of their body.

At Mater, we believe that no woman should have to fear being taken away from her loved ones by ovarian cancer. That’s why we have made a long-term commitment to all women living with ovarian cancer to invest heavily in research, research that will make significant headway in improving their quality of life.  

What are Mater researchers are working on right now?

Right now at Mater Research—our world-class research institute—we have several researchers specialising in ovarian cancer and there is a growing investment in this space.

Our research teams are unique in that they are able to translate their research findings from ‘bench to bedside’ as quickly as possible—from their research labs to the patient’s bedside within Mater’s hospital network; directly benefiting patients at Mater, across Australia and around the world.

We know that ovarian cancer is diagnosed often too late, due to its hidden symptoms.

But what if women, once diagnosed, could be offered a personalised treatment plan, tailored to their own genetic predisposition? One that would allow them to treat their ovarian cancer as a manageable disease, with medication and lifestyle programs to prevent tumour recurrence?

Professor John Hooper and his team of researchers are working towards this goal. His work is identifying which drugs will inhibit cancer growth, or even cause it to regress, by comparing the genetic samples of patient tumours with a genetic analysis of their blood.

“Through this research we’re hoping that we can better identify the drug, or drugs, that inhibit or prevent genetic changes from fuelling future cancer growth in each individual patient, giving her more tailored outcomes to treatment,” he said.

Imagine a world where ovarian cancer is a manageable disease

If successful, this research at Mater could turn ovarian cancer into a manageable disease, with individually tailored treatment plans based on genetic analysis of each patient.

And for ovarian cancer survivor, Katherine Brown, she knows that cancer does not discriminate.

“Ovarian cancer doesn’t discriminate against age and there is still no early detection test such as a pap smear.” Katherine, diagnosed with ovarian cancer at just 22.

How Katherine found out she had ovarian cancer

At 22 years old, Katherine Brown had the world at her feet; she had moved out of home and started her dream job as a teacher working in a small country town.

Then she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

“It took me a while to work out I had cancer; I was feeling unwell for a few months but ignored it because I thought it was fatigue. I was a young person just starting out in life,” Katherine said.

“I had put on a lot of weight and was always tired and I wondered if that was normal.

“After a while, my tummy grew to be huge; it was so big and I couldn’t eat anything, but constantly felt full. I finally went to a local GP and was told I probably had the flu.”

However, after visiting a local hospital in North Queensland with breathing difficulties, Katherine was flown to Mater Hospital Brisbane for further testing—and there, she was diagnosed with a tumour on her ovary.

“I thought ovarian cancer was something that young people would never get. I wondered ‘why me?’.”

“My family were in disbelief. All my friends and I thought the vaccination for cervical cancer covered ovarian cancer. It doesn’t.”

Surgery revealed a 20 cm tumour and more than four litres of fluid and surgeons had to remove Katherine’s right ovary. She then underwent three months of intensive chemotherapy.

“I had four cycles of treatment and each treatment was made up of chemo every day for one week, then one day a week for two weeks,” she said.

“I wasn’t able to work for seven months and I missed teaching and my old life.”

But her recovery wasn’t over yet—it took another operation before Katherine was clear of her cancer cells.

“The treatment was difficult and made me feel quite sick. If there was a better, more personalised treatment that was more effective in treating my cancer, I would have jumped at it,” she said.

While she considers herself very lucky, sadly for women like Katherine the prognosis for ovarian cancer has not improved in recent times, and too many women are still dying every day.

At Mater, we see improving the treatment of ovarian cancer as vital, because while most patients respond well to surgery and chemotherapy, their cancer can often return and there is no proven method of prevention.

That’s why continued, significant investment is research is needed. Research that will help save more Australians lives.

“We all know someone who has been touched by cancer and ovarian cancer often flies under the radar so I think it’s great to have research that will improve treatment options as well as help work towards an early detection test for women,” Katherine said.

To show your support for ovarian cancer research at Mater purchase your tickets in the Mater Prize Home lottery today.

Professor Hooper is a Mater Foundation Fellow, so this promising project is funded via the support of generous donations. Mater Foundation is actively seeking ongoing support for this area.

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