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The Big O

by Deirdre Kelly

photography by mike ford

For many women, late-stage ovarian cancer is usually an automatic death sentence. But new breakthrough research at York University may give hope to those afflicted by the deadly disease.

By honing in on the body’s complex internal systems involved in the development of ovarian cancer, York Research Chair and Faculty of Science Professor Chun Peng and former grad student Mohamed Salem (PhD ’18) have uncovered the pivotal role played by a small tumour-promoting molecule in those patients with the disease.

“Our study provides strong new evidence to support a tumour-promoting role of miR-590-3p in ovarian cancer,” says Peng, who supervised the research investigation that focused specifically on epithelial ovarian cancer (EOC), the most common and deadliest form of the illness. 

“We also identified a gene, FOXA2, as a target of miR-590-3p, providing several important lines of evidence to support the idea that FOXA2 inhibits tumour growth in ovarian cancer.” 

A microRNA, miR-590-3p naturally exists in our cells. However, its increased presence in the body may indicate that ovarian cancer has struck, explains Salem, who collaborated on the five-year study with researchers from York University, the University of Ottawa and the American University in Cairo. 

Lowering that level can also help regulate the tumour progression and development, potentially resulting in a cure

Funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Canada Foundation for Innovation/Ontario Research Fund, the findings were recently published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Cancer Research. 

Significant is the discovery that “miR-590-3p levels are higher in the blood of ovarian cancer patients when compared to women with benign gynecological disorders,” says Salem, adding that the level of this microRNA is higher in more aggressive tumour tissues compared to less aggressive ones.

“Measuring the level of miR-590-3p could potentially allow for early detection of the disease without the need for invasive procedures like surgery. Lowering that level can also help regulate the tumour progression and development, potentially resulting in a cure.” 

While more work still needs to be done, the importance of this discovery cannot be underestimated. 

Ovarian cancer is a leading killer of women with gynecological cancer in the developed world, having a five-year survival rate of just 44 per cent.

The mortality rate is high mainly because ovarian cancer is often hard to detect at an early stage. Symptoms generally are vague and elusive, and advanced screening tests tend to be inconclusive or non-existent. That’s why so many women continue to be afflicted. 

An estimated 2,800 Canadian women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer this year, and approximately 1,800 of them will die, according to the latest statistical data released by Ovarian Cancer Canada. 

But despite ongoing research to find a cure, early detection and effective treatments at later stages of the disease remain the only means for a long-term remedy to ovarian cancer.  

“The privilege of working in one of the York University labs, with cutting-edge advanced technology and a solid commitment and determination to make changes in people’s lives, lie at the core of our work,” Salem says. “The aim of our original research is to net results to benefit many.”   

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