Scientists Receive Grants to Study Ovarian Cancer

Antonella Lisanti | antonella.lisanti@yale.edu October 25, 2009

Ovarian cancer is sometimes referred to as a “silent killer” because it often remains undetected until it has spread to other body parts. Early detection is critical to increase the chances of successful treatment and survival. (Image courtesy of www. mdconsult.com)

Ovarian cancer, the fifth leading cause of cancer-related deaths among women in the United States, is often overlooked despite being one of the most serious forms of cancer affecting women. While 80 percent of ovarian cancer patients in the primary stage of the disease successfully respond to surgery and chemotherapy, only 15 percent of patients with recurrent cancers survive.

In an attempt to improve the survival rate of women suffering from ovarian cancer, Dr. Gil Mor and Dr. Alessandro Santin of the Yale School of Medicine have collectively received over $5 mil­lion in grants to support their promising research. The grants target two major objectives: the first is to improve tests for early detection of ovarian cancer, and the second is to understand the cel­lular mechanism behind chemotherapy resistance of ovarian cancer.

Dr. Mor received a grant from the National Cancer Institute worth $1.57 million in addition to $450,000 from the Hanet Burros Memorial Foundation, $150,000 from the Sand Foundation, and $50,000 from the Adler Foundation. These funding sources finance investigations of the role of cancer stem cells in ovarian cancer’s resistance to cell death. Furthermore, Dr. Mor received an additional $1.7 million from the National Cancer Institute to study inflammation associated with ovarian cancer.

Dr. Santin independently received a total of $1.7 million from the Instituto Superiore di Sanita and the National Cancer Institute. This funding sup­ports his research on the development of a vaccine for ovarian cancer patients with human papillo­mavirus (HPV) as well as on the development of molecular therapies that manage chemotherapy resistant tumors.

For decades, tumors have been thought to be composed of one type of cancer cell that continuously divides by accelerated division. However, research has revealed that tumors are actually composed of both fast dividing cells and cancer stem cells. When human tumor cells are transplanted in animals, they have the capacity to recreate tumors, a behavior similar to that of adult stem cells. These types of tumor cells have become known as “cancer stem cells.”

Unfortunately, existing therapies for cancer only target cells undergoing rapid division. When a patient is treated with chemotherapy, the fast dividing cells are killed but the cancer stem cells remain intact. When fast dividing cells die, cancer stem cells work to repair the tumor. Therefore, it is necessary to eradicate the five to ten percent of cancer stem cells present in tumors in order to suppress future tumor growth. Dr. Mor believes that his new sources of funding will help to elu­cidate areas of research associated with ovarian cancer stem cells.

Dr. Mor’s research also investigates the inflam­mation associated with ovarian cancer. The cellular response results from stimuli promot­ing tissue repair. It has been found that inflam­matory processes allow cancer stem cells to enroll immune cells for tumor repair. The main objective of his research in this area is to further understand the connection between cancer stem cells and inflammation. He hopes that his group can inhibit the inflammatory process that allows cancer stem cells to repair tumors. Currently, his group is screening target drugs that they have developed to inhibit inflammation. Pre-clinical studies in vitro have been successful, and the next step would be to move on to animal studies and Phase I clinical trials.

“Even in this difficult time with little money available from the National Cancer Institute,” said Mor, “we have been successful in getting a grant that will help to further our research objec­tives and to allow our department to become a leader in translational research for ovarian cancer.” Indeed, Dr. Santin and Dr. Mor’s award of $5 million is an incredible accomplishment, one that will significantly enhance the progress of ovarian cancer research.