Researchers Develop New Test for Ovarian Cancer
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Researchers Develop New Test for Ovarian Cancer

Officials at the Ovarian Cancer Institute in Atlanta have created a test that harnesses computer power to provide an early warning for the disease.

Ovarian cancer is very difficult to detect until it is well advanced.
Ovarian cancer is very difficult to detect until it is well advanced.

Two prominent Atlanta cancer researchers have come up with what they believe is one of the world’s first tests to detect early symptoms for ovarian cancer. The two, both with the Atlanta-based Ovarian Cancer Institute, are Dr. Benedict Benigno, who is the president and chief executive officer of the organization, and Jeffrey Skolnick, the Institute’s scientific director. The pair have just submitted their findings to the Federal Food and Drug Administration to begin the formal process of government approval.

For Dr. Benigno, who has worked for decades on the breakthrough, the development has been particularly welcome. Women with ovarian cancer often show no early warning signs. When they do, the disease is often in an advanced stage. As a gynecologic surgeon with a private practice, Benigno often had the difficult task of telling a woman that her ovarian cancer was likely to be fatal.

“The first symptom of ovarian cancer may often not occur for a long time or not at all,” Benigno said. “The first sign a woman may notice is an intermittent, partial small bowel obstruction. Unfortunately, by that time, it’s in stage three. And it’s very, very difficult to put this into permanent remission.”

Jeffrey Skolnick is a Georgia Tech expert on the use of computers in biomedicine who helped develop an algorithm to detect ovarian cancer.

The disease is the second largest cause of death among gynecological cancers in this country. There are over 20,000 cases each year. Seventy to eighty percent of those women do not survive. But, if the disease can be caught in its early stages, Benigno believes the new test could totally reverse those numbers.

The initial research to discover this test began more than a quarter-century ago with the work of John McDonald at Georgia Tech. Its development has been aided by the massive power of computers at the university, where Skolnick is director of the Center for The Study of Systems Biology. The new test is based on the development of a diagnostic computer formula or algorithm that is said to be highly effective in providing early detection of the illness.

In a recent study published in the journal, Gynecologic Oncology, the test has shown to be 98 percent effective in determining whether a woman has ovarian cancer, regardless of what stage the cancer may be in.

Where cancer is not present, it is 100 percent effective in ruling out a diagnosis of ovarian cancer as well. According to Skolnick, who is an expert in the use of computers in medical diagnosis, the test is a significant advance in the power of modern computers.

Dr. Benedict Benigno is a gynecological surgeon who has worked for decades on an early test for ovarian cancer.

“It’s taken an immense amount of computer work to develop what is the best molecular signature to detect early-stage ovarian cancer. The test we have developed does that by analyzing the presence of affected metabolites out of over 250,000 of these biologic molecules that are present in the human body.”

Using the computer analysis of a sample of a patient’s blood, the test searches for the presence of over 34,000 kinds of metabolites associated with ovarian cancer that are created when the body breaks down biological materials.

“These metabolites are small molecules in your blood that become what we would call ‘dysregulated’ when you have cancer,” Skolnick says, “so their concentrations change. That creates a signature that you can use as an icon to recognize whether the patient has ovarian cancer or not. And so, it’s kind of like an elevated cholesterol level to determine a patient’s potential to develop heart disease. It’s the same logical idea except that this is much more sophisticated.”

The FDA now must decide whether the test is promising enough to OK the start of full clinical trials, a process that could take a number of years. Both men, who have spent years developing the groundwork for the procedure, believe that a positive finding by the FDA could also lead to additional funding for the research needed to complete the final approval for the test.

Skolnick believes that the test — which is now very expensive to use — could ultimately be brought down in price to about $100 each. And that it could become as common as the pap smear, which is used to effectively screen for uterine cancer. The potential could have a far-reaching effect on saving women around the world from the disease.

In another important development in the work of detecting cancer in women, Sharsheret, the American Jewish organization that supports women affected by ovarian and breast cancer, has announced that it is expanding its work to include women in Israel.

Elana Silber, the organization’s chief executive officer said that the expansion had been under consideration for several years, but that the COVID pandemic had caused them to temporarily postpone the decision.

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