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Research Gives New Hope to Ovarian Cancer Patients


Ovarian cancer has long been among the most feared diseases among women. And rightly so. It's often detected in a late stage. And the disease is very hard to cure once it has spread beyond the ovaries.

An estimated 23,100 U.S. women will be diagnosed with the disease this year and about 14,000 will die, according to the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance.

A recent surge of funding and scientific progress, however, may brighten the outlook for women with the disease and those who are at high risk for it.

Among the developments:

* Researchers are studying a family of substances called lysophospholipids, or LPA, that might serve as an accurate blood marker for the disease. A pilot study published in 1998 showed that LPA levels were elevated in women with various stages of ovarian cancer.

There is currently no reliable early detection test for ovarian cancer. The CA 125 blood test is sometimes given to women at high risk. But the test has a high error rate, and the LPA test could render it unnecessary. When the disease is detected early--which happens in only one in four women--the five-year survival rate is more than 90%. Survival rates plunge to about 50% when the disease is detected at an advanced stage.

Although there are no obvious symptoms of ovarian cancer, some women experience abdominal bloating, digestive changes or problems, severe fatigue or abnormal bleeding before being diagnosed.

* Several new chemotherapy agents have become available in the last several years that are extending survival rates in women with advanced disease. Several other drugs are in clinical trials, and some may do more than just slow the disease.

"What we are not sure of, with these new drugs, is if they will stop the tumor from growing or, more optimistically, may make the tumor go away," says Dr. Gordon Mills, a cancer researcher at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

* Researchers may be making progress on understanding how to prevent the disease. Although it has long been known that birth control pills can reduce the risk of ovarian cancer by as much as 40%, the way the pills accomplish this has been a mystery.

New research to be presented this week at the annual conference of the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance suggests that the chemical progestin in the pills activates molecular pathways in the ovary that decrease the likelihood that precancerous cells will develop. The association was discovered by scientists at Duke University.

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