New Technologies Aim to Improve Ovarian Cancer Detection

Kate O'Rourke

October 30, 2020

Encouraging trends abound in the management of ovarian cancer. As rates of ovarian disease continue to decline, there has also been a notable increase in tools for detecting it earlier in its course.

Dr Rebecca Stone

To better understand these developments, Medscape recently reached out to Rebecca Stone, MD, an ovarian cancer expert and associate professor of gynecologic oncology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in Baltimore, Maryland. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Medscape: There has been a decline in the rates of ovarian cancer in recent years. What are the possible causes of this?

Dr Stone: The number of new cases in the United States has actually been declining over the past two decades. This is thought to be attributable to the increased prescribing of oral contraceptive pills in the late 1990s and the uptake of preventive measures, such as risk-reducing gynecologic surgery for women with genetic predisposition to ovarian cancer, as well as opportunistic salpingectomy in the general population. Opportunistic salpingectomy was introduced about 10 years ago. It is a surgical means for primary prevention of tubo-ovarian cancer by removing both fallopian tubes at the time of elective surgery for women who have completed childbearing or in lieu of "tying the tubes" for women who desire permanent surgical sterility.

What can you tell us about a recent study suggesting that high-grade serous epithelial ovarian cancer may be detected earlier in the course of the disease by testing for TP53 clonal variants in DNA from Papanicolaou (Pap) tests performed during cervical cancer screening?

The idea here is that early mutational events that ultimately result in the development of epithelial ovarian cancer can be detected by performing gene sequencing on genetic material collected at the time of routine Pap smear screening done for cervical cancer. Pap tests are known to contain cells and genetic material shed from the fallopian tubes, where the precancerous lesions thought to give rise to epithelial ovarian cancer, predominantly serous epithelial ovarian cancers, start.

p53 gene mutations are thought to occur early in the evolution of ovarian cancer. There are data indicating that these mutations actually occur in cells lining the fallopian tubes. Polymerase chain reaction–based DNA/gene sequencing performed on cervical fluid collected by Pap smears could detect these p53-mutated cells shed from the fallopian tubes.

A strength of this study is that it included healthy controls. None of their Pap smears screened positive for the p53 mutations, unlike the Pap smears of women predating their diagnosis of ovarian cancer.

Limitations of the study include the fact that it had a small sample size. Findings will need to be confirmed in a larger patient population.

Also, the study only looked for p53 gene mutations. Ovarian cancers, like other cancers, are largely thought to occur when there is a buildup of mutations in critical genes that result in uncontrolled cell growth and division. These genetic changes/mutations are acquired during a person's lifetime. Thus, there are likely early genetic changes/mutations that occur in addition to p53 mutations that ultimately lead to the development of ovarian cancer. Detecting these along with p53 mutations could improve the sensitivity/detection rate of the screening strategy that the authors are investigating.

Finally, this screening strategy may not prove effective for the early detection of all histologic subtypes of epithelial ovarian cancer or for nonepithelial ovarian cancers.

What other recent developments in the diagnosis of ovarian cancer should clinicians be aware of?

Liquid biopsies using circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA) have shown promising results for cancer detection and management, including ovarian cancer. However, further clarification is needed to define the minimum tumor size/burden detectable using ctDNA-based approaches. Moreover, large prospective studies are needed to determine the clinical utility of ctDNA detection for early diagnosis of ovarian cancer and its impact on patient outcomes.

DNA methylation is an early event in carcinogenesis and can be detected in blood plasma samples from cancer patients. Data related to the discovery and validation of discriminated methylated DNA marker candidates extracted from ovarian cancer tissues were presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting this year. Findings were subsequently evaluated in plasma from women with and without ovarian cancer.

In addition to blood, peritoneal fluid and uterine lavage have been used to obtain cell pellets that are used for the identification of common mutant genes ― TP53, BRCA1 and BRCA2. These body fluids have also been shown as the source of tumor-derived material that can be used to differentiate between ovarian cancer patients and healthy individuals.

Further studies are needed to determine the sensitivity and specificity of other noninvasive tests for the diagnosis of ovarian cancer.

The American Cancer Society issued a statement that human the papillomavirus (HPV) test is the preferred cervical cancer screening tool. Why do they prefer the HPV test over the Pap test?

The American Cancer Society recommends that cervical cancer testing (screening) begin at age 25 years. Women aged 25 to 65 years should have a primary HPV test every 5 years. If primary HPV testing is not available, screening may be done with either a co-test that combines an HPV test with a Pap test every 5 years or a Pap test alone every 3 years.

The HPV test is widely available. The cost of an HPV test is approximately $44 (unit cost, 2014 USD). The cost of a Pap test is approximately $30 (unit cost, 2014 USD).

The HPV test is preferred over cytologic testing (Pap) for several reasons.

Firstly, in well-designed studies, the sensitivity of a single Pap smear for detecting high-grade precancer of the cervix is around 50%, which is less than optimal for a cancer screening test. Sensitivity means the chance that if you have the disease (in this case, high-grade precancer of the cervix), the test will detect it. In particular, cytology is known to have an even more limited ability to detect glandular precancers, which arise in the endocervical canal rather than on or in close proximity to the exterior surface of the cervix (ectocervix). Thus, HPV-based screening programs hold the promise of improving detection of cervical adenocarcinoma.

Secondly, to function reliably, cytology programs require substantial infrastructure, highly qualified human resources, and a well‐defined quality-control system, which have proved to be costly and difficult to implement. This results in global disparities in cytology-based cervical cancer screening programs.

Thirdly, although co‐testing with both cytology and HPV tests is an option for screening programs, studies have confirmed that there is limited benefit from adding cytology to HPV screening. Long‐term studies from Kaiser Permanente that included over 1 million women found that HPV testing has a very high negative predictive value for precancerous lesions. Women with negative HPV tests were very unlikely to develop precancerous lesions in the following 5 years. The 5‐year risk of high-grade precancer or cancer of the cervix following a negative HPV test was 0.14%, whereas for women with a negative cytology, it was 0.31%. The screening benefit of co‐testing is largely driven by HPV testing and not cytology.

So, in summary, HPV testing is preferred over cytologic screening for cervical cancer, given its improved sensitivity and quality assurance, the opportunity to automate testing, and, ultimately, its prospect of reducing the overall number of lifetime screenings for women.

Stone has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Kate O'Rourke is a freelance writer in Portland, Maine. She has covered the field of oncology for over 10 years.

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