In 2018, the American Cancer Society estimates that roughly 22,240 women in the U.S. alone will receive a new diagnosis of ovarian cancer. Additionally, about 14,070 women will die from ovarian cancer this year as well. But there may be hope on the horizon. There may be a vaccine available to fight ovarian cancer and lessen the number of deaths. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine are hard at work perfecting a treatment for the cancer.
The treatment in question is a personalized cancer vaccine that "might be able to trigger and boost the immune system and increase the survival rates of patients," Dr. Lana Kandalaft, the study's lead author and an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania. She and a team of researchers held a small clinical trial of the vaccine with promising results.
The study, published in the journal Science Translation Medicine, Researchers tested 25 patients with advanced recurrent ovarian cancer — a diagnosis that comes with a five-year survival rate of 17 percent, according to CNN — providing them with "personalized" vaccines. The shots were made from the women's own tumors, which were stored and preserved before surgery, along with dendritic cells from her blood. Patients each received, on average, 16 vaccines throughout the study and none of them reported experiencing severe side effects from the vaccine.
These vaccines were designed to boost their immune response and enable their bodies to better fight the disease. The patients who received the vaccine had "significantly higher" survival two years after treatment than those who did not, according to Science Translation Magazine. The study was a small one, but these increased survival rates are certainly cause for optimism.
Ovarian cancer is often referred to as a "silent killer," due to difficulty diagnosing it. Symptoms include bloating, pelvic of abdominal pain, difficulty eating, frequent urination, fatigue, heartburn, back pain, painful intercourse, constipation, and menstrual changes, according to the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition (NOCC). While these symptoms don't seem like much on their own, experts urge women to seek medical treatment if they are new and persistent. Unfortunately, because symptoms appear minor, the NOCC reported that only 19 percent of cases are caught in the early stages.
Early detection is key to increased survival, as ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer deaths among women, according to the American Cancer Society. While this cancer mainly develops in older women — with about half of those diagnosed being 63 or older — young women, too, should be proactive. If you are experiencing symptoms, speak with your doctor. Know your body and what is normal for you.
There are currently no simple and reliable ways to screen for ovarian cancer in women without symptoms, although some are in the works, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pap tests only screen for cervical cancer, not ovarian cancer and few tumors are found via pelvic exams. However, regular women's health exams are crucial to preventing and detecting any reproductive issues.
Along with health exams, studies have shown that breastfeeding babies greatly reduces a woman's risk of developing ovarian cancer. A breastfeeding mother is nearly two-thirds less likely to develop ovarian cancer, according to Daily Mail UK, and the longer she breastfeeds, the better protected she is. Additionally, the more children she has, the greater the effect.
There is clearly still a lot of work to do in the fight against ovarian cancer, but Kandalaft and her team are hopeful that their vaccine will contribute to that fight. Increased awareness is a part of that fight as well.