Two genes that are turned off in ovarian cancer cells could provide an early test for the illness known as the silent killer, Austrian scientists said on Tuesday.
Researchers at the Medical University of Vienna have identified five genes that have very low activity in ovarian cancer. Two, called N33 and NFA6R, do not work in most cases.
“These two genes are turned off,” said Professor Michael Krainer, an ovarian cancer researcher at the university.
Although exactly what N33 and NFA6R do is not known, Krainer and his team suspect they may be involved with the progression of ovarian cancer which kills 114,000 women worldwide each year.
They suspect the genes have been turned off by a process called methylation, a form of gene inactivation, which may help identify patients with early signs of the illness.
“This would perhaps be a tool for earlier diagnosis of ovarian cancer in the future,” Krainer told Reuters.
Ovarian cancer is known as the silent killer because there are no symptoms in the early stages. Most women are not diagnosed until the cancer has spread beyond the ovaries when treatment is less effective and the five-year survival rate is only about 20 percent.
A diagnostic test, particularly for high-risk women, could help catch the disease early when treatment is more effective. A family history of the illness is the single most important risk factor for ovarian cancer.
Krainer, whose findings will be reported in the journal Cancer, said it appears the two genes have already lost their activity before symptoms of the illness appear, so methylation occurs in the first stages of the disease which would allow doctors to detect the disease much earlier.
“Methylation like this is easy to detect and could be an early warning sign for a developing cancer,” Krainer said.
If the gene is methylated in the tumor, it may be possible to detect it relatively easily, he added, with a blood sample and a technique called polymerase chain reaction (PCR).
“This is perhaps the basis for a blood test,” he said. “It is not there yet but this is the clinical implication of this basic research.”