Ovarian Cancer- Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center

Diseases / Research

Ovarian Cancer

ovarian cancer

Ovarian carcinoma stained with a trichrome stain. The cancer cells are staining purple and the collagen in the surrounding stroma is staining blue.

Photo by Fred Hutch Experimental Histopathology

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Fred Hutch scientists are working to save lives by identifying promising new treatments, detection methods and prevention strategies for ovarian cancer.

Hutch researchers have made significant discoveries toward early detection and improving treatment outcomes including evidence that three proteins exist in increasing levels in patients' blood three to four years prior to their ovarian-cancer diagnosis and that mutations in the BRCA2 gene cause recurrent ovarian tumors to become resistant to certain chemotherapy drugs.

Fast Facts

  • Ovarian cancer begins in the fallopian tubes and/or the ovaries, the small, almond-shaped female reproductive organs alongside the uterus.

  • Ovarian tumors most commonly arise from the epithelial cells that line the fallopian tube and the surface of the ovaries; such tumors are known as epithelial carcinomas. Ovarian cancer that starts in the egg-forming cells (germ-cell tumors) or in the ovaries’ connective tissue (stromal tumors) is more rare.

  • Ovarian cancer was historically called a "silent killer" because it was thought that symptoms were never visible until the disease was advanced and hard to treat. But recent studies have shown that certain symptoms—including bloating, pelvic or abdominal pain, difficulty eating or feeling full quickly, and urinary urgency or frequency—are much more likely to occur in women with ovarian cancer.

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Prevention & Causes

Investigating ovarian cancer vaccines – Dr. Nora Disis is evaluating a vaccine candidate that targets a protein called IGFBP-2. The goal is to prevent ovarian cancer from recurring. Her team is conducting a Phase I clinical trial to evaluate the vaccine's performance. Learn more >

Genetic counseling linked to preventive ovary removal - A randomized clinical trial led by Dr. Robyn Andersen at Fred Hutch found that proactively offering genetic counseling to women at high risk of ovarian cancer can increase the use of prophylactic oophorectomy, or preventive ovary removal. Learn more >

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Detection & Diagnosis

Improving diagnosisDr. Grady and his lab team are using molecular and cellular biology to identify ways to prevent, identify and treat colon cancer. Grady has identified a panel of genes that could be used for the early detection of colon polyps or colon cancer.  These “biomarker” genes can be detected in blood, stool or even urine. He is also examining other genes that may predict how tumors will respond to different types of treatment.  Learn more >

Getting a jump on detection – Dr. Urban and her colleagues have found evidence that three proteins—CA125, HE4 and mesothelin—exist in increasing levels in patients' blood three to four years prior to their ovarian-cancer diagnosis. The discovery could help doctors predict a woman's risk of developing ovarian cancer and even prevent the disease's development altogether. Learn more >

Improving screening – Dr. Urban's team is investigating the safety and feasibility of ovarian cancer screening to select women for pelvic imaging. Women ages 25 to 80 who have at least one ovary and have not been diagnosed with ovarian cancer may be eligible to participate in this study. Learn more >

Dr. Charles Drescher and colleagues are developing ways to enhance ultrasound imaging to detect ovarian and fallopian tube tumors in their earliest stages. They will conduct a Phase I clinical trial using ultrasound and microbubbles, tiny gas-filled particles that target a protein found in new blood vessels, to visualize blood vessels associated with malignancies. Learn more >

Developing new screening tests – Drs. Robyn Andersen and Barbara Goff, along with colleagues, found that a simple patient questionnaire that screens for abdominal pain, bloating, difficulty eating and other factors could detect ovarian cancer as early and effectively as a traditional blood test. The survey may provide doctors with a rapid and cost-effective screen.  Learn more >

Dr. Andersen's team found combining the same patient questionnaire with a standard blood test could improve early detection of ovarian cancer by 20 percent. Learn more >

And in a primary care setting they found that this simple three-question paper-and-pencil survey, given to women in the doctor’s office in less than two minutes, can effectively identify those who are experiencing symptoms that may indicate ovarian cancer. Learn more >

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Treatment & Prognosis

Bringing treatment to all populations – Dr. Barbara Goff and colleagues have found that one-third of ovarian-cancer patients in the United States do not receive the recommended comprehensive surgical treatment. Their review of hospital found that women who are elderly, poor or live in communities of color were at greatest risk for undertreatment. Learn more >

Avoiding ineffective surgery – Drs. Charles Drescher and Martin McIntosh are working to develop a new blood test that measures levels of molecules called microRNAs, which act as brakes on different parts of a cell. The goal is to improve physicians' ability to predict and identify which ovarian cancer patients would respond poorly to surgery. That information could allow physicians to then focus on different therapies. Learn more >


Applying T-cell therapy to ovarian cancer – Fred Hutch researchers are testing a new immunotherapy that was pioneered for advanced melanoma, called adoptive T-cell therapy, in clinical trials with women who have advanced ovarian cancer. The technique involves extracting disease-fighting T-cells from patients, growing the cells to large quantities, and infusing them back into patients, where they destroy tumor cells. Learn more >

Harnessing natural immune response – Women with advanced ovarian cancer who have a natural immune response to a protein made by their tumors may live substantially longer after diagnosis than women who do not have the same immune response, according to a study by Dr. Nora Disis and colleagues. Researchers are now working to develop a vaccine for advanced ovarian cancer patients that would boost this cancer-fighting response. Learn more >


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