From technology improvements to promising treatments, advances are on the way.
By Jane E Allen
Finding a reliable screening test remains the Holy Grail of ovarian cancer research, but other goals abound as well. Today’s researchers are trying to unravel the underlying biology of the disease, identify factors that decrease a woman’s risk for ovarian tumors, and detect recurrences earlier with sophisticated imaging technology. Also on the horizon are improved drugs to boost survival. At the same time, patient advocates are expanding their education efforts through a nationwide campaign to publicize the early symptoms of the disease. (See “News You Can Use,” page 7)
Scientists are identifying factors that can reduce or increase a woman’s risk of developing ovarian cancer. Pregnancy and use of birth control pills have both been associated with lower rates of ovarian cancer, possibly because both suppress ovulation and decrease levels of hormones called gonadotropins. By extension, scientists have suspected that breast-feeding, which further suppresses ovulation and hormones, could also reduce a woman’s risk of ovarian tumors. Kim N. Danforth, Sc.D., M.P.H., and colleagues at Harvard Medical School and the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston recently confirmed that notion by analyzing 16 years of data collected from nearly 150,000 participants in the landmark Nurses’ Health Study and the Nurses’ Health Study II. They found that the longer a woman breast-feeds a baby, the more she reduces her risk, with breast-feeding for extended periods like 18 months over the course of a lifetime most helpful of all.
There’s emerging evidence that diet may influence ovarian cancer development. A Harvard study published in April in the International Journal of Cancer found that eating foods containing kaempferol, one of a group of plant-based antioxidants called flavonoids, may be protective. Researchers reported a 40 percent decrease in the incidence of ovarian cancer among women in the Nurses’ Health Study with the highest intakes of kaempferol—most often consumed in broccoli and tea (not herbal tea)—compared to those women with the lowest intakes. They also found a 34 percent reduction in disease incidence among study subjects whose diets provided the highest amount of luteolin—found in carrots and peppers—compared with those whose diets contained the lowest amounts.
Harvard’s Danforth also conducted a study linking some types of hormone replacement therapy to ovarian cancer. One study suggested that postmenopausal women who take estrogen alone can significantly increase their ovarian cancer risk. Another associated estrogen-progestin use with increased risk as well.