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.
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