Ovarian cancer is one of the more serious cancers which can affect women. It is the seventh most common cause of cancer in women, affecting one in twenty-eight women. The symptoms can be difficult to detect, as they mimic the effects of other, less dangerous diseases. When caught early, most women survive, but if caught late, it is known as the “Silent Killer.”
Unfortunately, ovarian cancer is being diagnosed with more frequency all over the world. Developing countries have been the most affected, with western countries increasing at a lower rate.
The rate of increase of the amount of ovarian cancer in India is increasing more and more frequently, and recently hit three times that of western nations. Breast cancer can be caused by the same genetic mutation and thus is sometimes combined with ovarian cancer in the statistics.
During the year 2012 in India, 145,000 new cases of ovarian and breast cancer were diagnosed, and 70,000 women died from these cancers. Those numbers have been increasing, and the Indian healthcare system is struggling with the load.
This is especially tragic because ovarian cancer is often detected during a later stage in Indian women, when the survival rate is lower. Half of Indian women who develop ovarian cancer will die from their disease.
An inherited problem
Ovarian cancer can be caused by different factors, not all of which are known. However, a large portion of women who develop ovarian cancer may do so because of hereditary factors. The most well-known mutations which are linked with ovarian cancer are BRCA1 and BRCA2, which are also linked with breast cancer. Eleven other mutations are also known to be linked with breast and ovarian cancer.
Mary-Claire King identified the main gene known to be linked with breast and ovarian cancer in the 1990s. At the time, the news was not treated with the importance it deserved. Ovarian cancer was not yet known to be heavily tied to inheriting such genetic mutations. It has not been until recently that we have learned how much of an effect mutations can have on developing cancer, and the importance of using genetic testing to identify who is at risk so as to best catch these cancers early.
Recent research results
In a recent study performed by Strand Life Sciences, a bioinformatics firm based out of India with a focus on developing new ways to detect and prevent cancer, only 20% of studied cases of women with ovarian cancer had no family history of ovarian or breast cancer.
Bioinformatics refers to the field of study which uses advanced technology and software to interpret and understand biological data. Strand Life Sciences is known all over the world as being a major force of this field.
They also tested family members of women with ovarian cancer. Seventy-two percent of their direct relatives had the same genetic mutation, putting them at risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer.
While ovarian cancer is most commonly seen in women in their later years, hereditary causes of cancer can potentially lead to women developing this cancer as young as twenty.
Thankfully, if one family member has the gene for hereditary ovarian cancer, genetic testing can be performed on their direct relatives to determine if they also have the gene. Knowing that they are at risk can help these family members stay alert for signs of ovarian cancer, helping them catch this deadly disease early, before the survival rate drops. In western countries, one in three women who develop ovarian cancer will die from the disease. In India, that number is higher. One in two Indian women with ovarian cancer pass away before the cancer is successfully treated.
Unfortunately, that is not the only news out of India about ovarian cancer. Even more alarming is that in a different study, out of fifty-one women with cancer caused by genetic mutations, nineteen of those mutations were novel.
Different and new mutations
A novel mutation is a little bit different from a new mutation in a person, also called a de novo mutation. A de novo mutation is one that is not inherited from a parent but instead occurs in someone, then they may pass it down to their offspring. De novo mutations occur unfortunately frequently, but scientists know and are alert about them.
On the other hand, a novel mutation is one that has not been recorded before by scientists. This is even more concerning because it means that new forms of hereditary ovarian cancer are coming into existence throughout India, and are being spread to offspring, who may then pass it to their children.
Something even more concerning is that the majority of genetic tests for ovarian cancer do not yet detect these novel mutations, as they were not known prior to the creation of the test. It is fully possible that some women have been tested for ovarian cancer and were told that they did not have a mutation known to cause ovarian cancer, while carrying such a mutation.
A new test
Strand Life Sciences is focused on combating this serious problem. They have performed multiple studies to not only understand ovarian and breast cancer but also to develop new forms of detection that can uncover these cancers before they reach the later stages.
So far, they appear to be on the path of success. In a study during which they tested a multi-gene panel to detect ovarian cancer, they detected the genetic causes of cancer with greater frequency than expected. The test performed with much greater accuracy than tests in common use.
Existing tests typically focus on detecting only a single genetic mutation at a time. Some try to detect the genes BRCA1 and BRCA2. Others detect for a mutation in a specific gene, but are performed in sequence to try to detect mutations in multiple genes.
Strand Life Sciences' method of detecting multiple genetic mutations at once seems to be more accurate, not to mention the fact that performing a single test rather than a battery of tests causes less stress for the patient.
Also, one of the reasons ovarian cancer is overlooked is because testing for the cancer can be invasive and cause dangerous complications. As such, doctors may hold off on testing for ovarian cancer, Remember, the symptoms of ovarian cancer tend to be subtle or mimic other diseases. Why subject women to invasive tests if the answer could be something easier?
If Strand Life Sciences can develop a new test with less stress and less of an impact on the patient's quality of life, it can lead to women detecting their ovarian cancer more easily, more accurately, and much earlier. With such a test, doctors may be more likely to be willing to test for ovarian cancer. Everyone benefits, in India and beyond.
The bottom line
India's women are suffering from hereditary ovarian cancer at an alarming rate. Such cancer is being diagnosed at a rate that is growing at three times the rate of western nations, and women in India are more likely to die from the cancer than their western counterparts.
However, Indian based bioinformatics firm Strand Life Sciences is stepping up to the plate and is not only identifying the issue, but is trying to solve it. They are researching the novel mutations and are determining how best to test for not only the most well-known mutations but these rare ones as well.
Perhaps with their help, the growth in ovarian cancer currently facing India may plateau then drop, and the testing will be able to help women all over the world.