A blood test could detect ovarian cancer two years before women are currently diagnosed.
It could save thousands of lives, and will strengthen calls for women to be invited for ovarian cancer screening as well as breast cancer.
The blood test looks for four proteins released into the bloodstream by the most common type of ovarian cancer.
Epithelial ovarian cancer, which forms in the tissue covering the ovary, is diagnosed in more than 7,000 women a year and kills over 4,000.
A blood test could detect ovarian cancer two years before women are currently diagnosed. It could save thousands of lives, and will strengthen calls for women to be invited for ovarian cancer screening as well as breast cancer
Scientists, analysing the blood of 49 women a year before their diagnosis, were able to detect more than two-thirds of those who went on to get aggressive ovarian cancer.
They identified more than a quarter of women who would suffer aggressive ovarian cancer two years before their diagnosis.
A test able to detect ovarian cancer one or two years earlier could mean the difference between life and death as, by the time most women visit the doctor with confusing symptoms like bloating and stomach pain, the cancer has already spread.
If diagnosed at the earliest stage, 92 per cent of women with ovarian cancer survive five years or more, but among those diagnosed with the most advanced cancer, this falls to 12 per cent.
Dr Robert Graham, who led the study from Queen’s University Belfast, said: ‘Most ovarian cancer cases are caught at a late stage, so we hope to have developed a test which could detect ovarian cancer earlier.
‘We hope, with further research and in conjunction with the ovarian cancer research community, we can build the case to push experts towards a national screening programme for ovarian cancer in the future.’
Women with ovarian cancer are usually diagnosed after experiencing symptoms, which can be hard to recognise and include a swollen stomach, loss of appetite, abdominal pain and needing to urinate more often.
If a GP suspects ovarian cancer, an abdominal examination can be followed by a blood test for a protein called CA125, which may then lead to an ultrasound scan.
However the sixth most common cancer might be picked up by a much earlier blood test in healthy women.
This matters because two-thirds of women with ovarian cancer are diagnosed once the disease has already spread.
The new test, a study on which is published in the British Journal of Cancer, looks for four proteins in the blood and uses a computer algorithm to rate women’s risk of ovarian cancer from ‘intermediate’ to ‘severe’.
It was trialled using 80 initially healthy women from a previous study, whose blood was taken every year, and of whom 49 were later diagnosed with epithelial ovarian cancer.
A year ahead of their diagnosis, the test was able to identify 68 per cent of those who would develop aggressive ovarian cancer and 53 per cent of those who would get a more slow-growing cancer.
Two years before they were diagnosed, scientists detected 28 per cent of women who would get aggressive cancer and one in five of those set to get the less aggressive kind.
The CA125 protein, discovered in the eighties, has long been the gold standard for picking up ovarian cancer early in blood tests.
A study four years ago suggested an early blood test for this protein might cut deaths from ovarian cancer by a fifth in women over 50, saving thousands of lives.
But the three newly discovered proteins, taken together, could improve the effectiveness of the test, according to researchers, as CA125 is also raised in other conditions like endometriosis.
They now want to trial their test on a larger group of women and all types of ovarian cancer.
Dr Rachel Shaw, research information manager at Cancer Research UK, which part-funded the study, said: ‘Around half of ovarian cancer cases are picked up at a late stage, when treatment is less likely to be successful. So developing simple tests like these that could help detect the disease sooner is essential.’
Annwen Jones, chief executive of Target Ovarian Cancer, said: ‘Progress is desperately needed in detecting ovarian cancer earlier. These are very promising early results, but the number of women involved is still too small.’
Athena Lamnisos, chief executive of The Eve Appeal, said: ‘We are extremely proud to have part funded the PROMISE programme, which brought together experts for a seven year project to try and diagnose ovarian cancer at an earlier stage.
‘Sadly, so many women are diagnosed late, to devastating effect. We are hopeful the outcomes of this project will have a positive affect on women in the future.’
WHY OVARIAN CANCER IS CALLED A ‘SILENT KILLER’
About 80 percent of ovarian cancer cases are diagnosed in the advanced stages of the disease.
At the time of diagnosis, 60 percent of ovarian cancers will have already spread to other parts of the body, bringing the five-year survival rate down to 30 percent from 90 percent in the earliest stage.
It’s diagnosed so late because its location in the pelvis, according to Dr Ronny Drapkin, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who’s been studying the disease for more than two decades.
‘The pelvis is like a bowl, so a tumor there can grow quite large before it actually becomes noticeable,’ Dr Drapkin told Daily Mail Online.
The first symptoms to arise with ovarian cancer are gastrointestinal because tumors can start to press upward.
When a patient complains of gastrointestinal discomfort, doctors are more likely to focus on diet change and other causes than suggest an ovarian cancer screening.
Dr Drapkin said it’s usually not until after a patient endures persistent gastrointestinal symptoms that they will receive a screening that reveals the cancer.
‘Ovarian cancer is often said to be a silent killer because it doesn’t have early symptoms, when in fact it does have symptoms, they’re just very general and could be caused by other things,’ he said.
‘One of the things I tell women is that nobody knows your body as well as you do. If you feel something isn’t right, something’s probably not right.’