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Sept. 14, 2016 - Attacking ovarian cancer in the lab

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MOBILE, Alabama – Outside USA Mitchell Cancer Institute, large decorative teal ribbons announce September as Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month.

Inside the institute, not far from where patients receive treatment, a team is working in the research lab on promising projects to address the most lethal of the GYN cancers – ovarian.

“We are actively developing new, targeted treatments for ovarian cancer as well as furthering our understanding of how the disease develops so that we might prevent. At present, the best preventative measure we have is to remove the ovaries of young women at risk for disease,” said physician-scientist Dr. Jennifer Scalici, who heads the GYN research team. “While effective, it’s a heavy, emotional decision to make that has lifelong implications for fertility and immediate development of menopause. I’d like a better solution to offer.”

Ovarian cancer is less common than breast cancer, but when it strikes, it strikes hard. Often by the time it’s diagnosed, the disease is in its later, less treatable stage. As a result, ovarian cancer accounts for more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system, an expected 14,240 in the U.S. this year.

MCI researchers hope to change that.

Scalici, fellow GYN oncologist Dr. Rod Rocconi and Research Assistant Professor Dr. Luciana Madeira da Silva lead the research projects. They target ovarian cancer on several fronts.

Some projects experiment with new anti-cancer compounds in collaboration with MCI’s Drug Discovery Lab to see if they can be developed as a potential treatment for ovarian cancer. Da Silva is testing one of the compounds, MCI-059, which has been shown to inhibit the growth of ovarian tumors in mice. She plans to present her findings at a national cancer research meeting next year.

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Another of the compounds, MCI-030, could soon be tested in hens at Auburn University in a project headed by Scalici. Laying hens, because of their frequent ovulation, are the only species other than women that develop ovarian cancer and do so at a high incidence. The study will test whether MCI-030 can fight cancer by inhibiting PDE10, an enzyme that Da Silva’s research shows is essential for ovarian tumor cell growth and will hopefully shed some light on the early events that lead to the development of ovarian cancer.

“We want to start administering the compound in the hens’ food at two years and see whether there will be a reduced incidence of cancer a year later,” Da Silva said. “We want to see if MCI-030 can be developed into a drug for the prevention of ovarian cancer recurrence.”

A health disparities project headed by Rocconi, meanwhile, is addressing why African-American women face a worse prognosis and a higher recurrence of ovarian cancer. Under this study, ovarian tumor tissue from Caucasian and African-American women is being collected and sent to the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology in Huntsville, where next-generation RNA sequencing and genomic ancestry will be correlated to investigate the molecular basis for this health disparity.

Rocconi says he expects to receive early results in the coming months that could take his research to the next level -- potentially identifying cancer-related biomarkers associated with race. Such findings could one day improve the outcomes for African-American patients in our region, he said.

Such “translational” research – using basic science to improve patient health -- is what sets MCI apart from other cancer centers, says Scalici. “At the end of the day, we are the only academic GYN oncology group actively conducting nationally recognized basic and translational research in gynecologic malignancies on the Gulf Coast,” she said. “We aim to translate our work in the laboratory to our patients in the clinic and do our part to advance cancer prevention and treatment, and provide women here locally with the highest level of care.”

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