Researchers explore new possibilities for ovarian cancer treatment
Researchers have made progress in treating ovarian cancer through surgery and chemotherapy. Yet the disease remains tough to treat because it has often spread by the time it is diagnosed.
Chemotherapy works well in treating newly diagnosed patients with ovarian cancer. But if the cancer returns, it can become resistant to chemotherapy. MD Anderson researchers Yunfei Wen, Ph.D., and Vahid Afshar-Kharghan, M.D., are focused on finding better ways to treat ovarian cancer that recurs. We spoke with them about what new treatments MD Anderson experts are developing.
A new understanding of ovarian cancer and the immune system
Until recently, scientists believed that a part of the immune system called the complement system helped to fight cancer. Then, new studies showed the opposite.
Ovary cancer cells produce complement proteins and release them inside the tumor, then the cancer cells use these proteins to grow.
“This activation of the complement system actually promotes the growth of the tumor. So, we said, let’s block cancer cells from secreting these proteins by turning off the gene that makes them, taking away the advantage to the cancer cells,” says Afshar-Kharghan. “This change caused the tumor to be much smaller.”
Based on what these laboratory tests showed, Afshar-Kharghan hopes to test this treatment in ovarian cancer clinical trials. Turning off the complement system as a cancer treatment is different from chemotherapy and other types of immunotherapy that normally boost the immune system. Turning off the complement system with anti-complement substances does not interfere with chemotherapy and could be used alongside it with few side effects.
Afshar-Kharghan wants to use anti-complement substances as a new and hopefully non-toxic treatment for ovarian cancer. This would give us a new way to treat cancer without the side effects patients experience with chemotherapy. “I hope that we can modify these substances to make them more powerful and easier to deliver to ovarian cancer tumors,” he says.
Looking deeper into ovarian cancer cells
Wen and her team are currently studying the role of a hormone called prolactin in ovarian cancer cells.
Prolactin allows cancer cells to grow faster. Wen is interested in treating ovarian cancer with the drug G129R, which targets and blocks prolactin. Doing this starves ovarian cancer cells of nutrients and starts a process called autophagy cell death. This is where cells eat certain parts of themselves, causing damage and destroying cancer cells.
With lower levels of prolactin, patients with high-grade ovarian cancer and endometrial cancer can survive longer, Wen says. She’s currently studying the use of G129R in cancers resistant to traditional chemotherapy in the lab. She plans to take this research into clinical trials.
If G129R proves effective, it would be used as another ovarian cancer therapy alongside more traditional treatments, such as chemotherapy.
Innovative immune system solutions from collaboration
Afshar-Kharghan started his career studying blood disorders. He came to MD Anderson because he was drawn to the collaborative atmosphere, which allowed him to exchange ideas with physician-scientists like Sood. That led him to work on ovarian cancer as well.
“The most important factor for me was that people are reaching across their ‘bubble’ of their specialty and start interacting,” says Afshar-Kharghan. “I strongly believe if I had been in another institution, I might not have started working on ovarian cancer. The environment at MD Anderson encouraged this sort of collaboration.”