Ovarian Cancer Screen Shows Promise

A blood test for the protein CA-125, coupled with a vaginal ultrasound, can help detect the difficult-to-spot cancer.

By | August 27, 2013

WIKIMEDIA, NEPHRONResearchers from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center have developed a highly specific screening procedure for ovarian cancer, the fifth-most common form of cancer among women. The screen includes a blood test, followed by a vaginal ultrasound for high-risk individuals. The findings were published Monday (August 26) in Cancer.

The symptoms of early-stage ovarian cancer—bloating and abdominal pain—are common to many ailments. If caught early, women with the disease have a 90 percent survival rate. Late detection decreases survival to 30 percent, making early detection critical.

For the current study, the researchers first assessed baseline levels of the carbohydrate antigen (CA)-125 protein. Women with low levels were retested yearly, whereas intermediate-risk women were tested again every three months. High-risk women were screened with a vaginal ultrasound and referred to a gynecologist. The team tested the procedure on 4,051 post-menopausal women between the ages of 50 and 74 during an 11-year period. Only 10 women were recommended for surgery. Of those, four were found to have invasive ovarian cancer. Overall, the new test showed 99.9 percent specificity, meaning there was a very low risk of false-positive results.

“The results from our study are not practice-changing at this time,” Karen Lu, lead author of the study and an oncologist at MD Anderson, said in a statement. “However, our findings suggest that using a longitudinal (or change over time) screening strategy may be beneficial in post-menopausal women with an average risk of developing ovarian cancer.”

Sarah Blagden, an oncology consultant at Imperial College London, told The Guardian that there is a risk that such a test would give women a false sense of security and make them less likely to report symptoms to their doctor. “If you have a screening program that tests people once a year, it might have a dangerous effect,” she said.

Meanwhile, the UK Collaborative Trial of Ovarian Cancer Screening, a randomized trial studying 300,000 women using the same two-stage procedure, is slated for completion in 2015.

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