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Immune Therapy Offers Hope for Ovarian Cancer

Researchers report on two possible new ways to help ovarian cancer patients live longer.
Hystero ovariectomy
Doctors perform a hystero-ovariectomy at the department of urology, operating room, Lyon Sud, France.MediaforMedical
/ Source: NBC News

An experimental treatment that trains a woman’s immune system to target her own ovarian tumors has helped at least 20 women live longer and might point to a way to manage one of the most deadly cancers out there.

And even older cancer drugs might help women live longer with ovarian cancer, researchers told a meeting Saturday. Avastin, used for a range of cancers, added a valuable five months on average to women’s lives without as many side effects, including deadly stomach bleeding, as was feared.

Neither treatment cured the patients. But both reports, presented at a meeting of the Society of Gynecologic Oncology on Saturday, offer some much-needed hope for the highly lethal cancer.

Ovarian cancer kills almost all its victims. It comes back after the first treatment in 80 percent of women, according to the National Cancer Institute. It will be diagnosed in more than 21,000 American women this year and it will kill more than 14,000.

“This is cutting edge medicine for ovarian cancer."

Standard treatment is surgery, followed by harsh chemotherapy and radiation. Women lose their hair, suffer nausea, weight loss and diarrhea.

Ovarian cancer’s been in the headlines because actor and director Angelina Jolie announced she had her ovaries removed surgically to avert her very high risk of ovarian cancer. Jolie, who inherited DNA mutations that put her at high risk, also had both breasts removed two years ago.

So doctors are looking for better treatments. Immunotherapy is one hopeful approach.

Dr. Jonathan Oh, a gynecologic oncologist at Texas Oncology in Dallas and colleagues tried the approach in 31 women who had advanced ovarian cancer. They took a sample of cells for each patient’s tumor genetically engineered them to activate the immune system to better recognize and attack them.

The women all got standard surgery and chemotherapy, and then some of them got one injection per month of modified tumor cells for anywhere between four and 12 months.

The cancer came back after 14 months on average in the women who did not get the immunotherapy. It has not come back yet in most of the women given the immunotherapy.

The researchers have stopped the trial and are now looking for more than 300 ovarian cancer patients for a more advanced trial.

“This is cutting edge medicine for ovarian cancer,” said Oh.

A second trial looked at Avastin, a drug that is used to treat a range of cancers by starving tumors.

“Most women whose ovarian cancer is recurring want every edge to extend their lives."

When added to the chemo that patients already get, it helped women live on average five months longer, researchers told the meeting.

“Most women whose ovarian cancer is recurring want every edge to extend their lives,” said Dr. Robert Coleman, of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, who led the study.

Avastin can cause a range of bad side-effects, including stomach bleeding, but they were not severe in these patients.