About the research

MGH Early Detection of Ovarian Cancer Research Program

Steven Skates, Ph.D.

Michael Gillette, M.D., Ph.D.

Michael Birrer (University of Alabama at Birmingham)

The goal of this research is to develop a blood test that can accurately detect ovarian cancer at its earliest stages.  

A blood protein that is often present in higher levels than normal among women with ovarian cancer is called CA 125.  MGH researcher Steven Skates, Ph.D., co-developed a test that improved detection of early stage ovarian cancer based on changes in the CA 125 blood protein over time where each woman serves as her own control.  This study provided the first evidence of reduced mortality from the disease through early detection.  

Building on this work, Michael Gillette, M.D., Ph.D., is using liquid chromatography coupled to tandem mass spectrometry to accurately measure other proteins present in higher amounts in women with ovarian cancer compared to women without the disease.  Dr. Gillette performs this research at the Broad Institute, however, no funding for the project is received from the Broad.  

A unique asset that makes this research especially promising is a longitudinal collection of blood samples from 4,000 women who were at high risk of developing ovarian cancer.  Women were screened every three months.  Only some women developed ovarian cancer. Comparison of blood proteins between samples of these women and the high-risk women who did not develop ovarian cancer reveals changes that occur in the earliest stages of ovarian cancer.  Most cancer centers collect samples only once patients have been diagnosed.  This unique collection of roughly half a million blood samples allows MGH researchers to develop a test for ovarian cancer prior to clinical diagnosis – when ovarian cancer is most treatable.  This will improve cancer treatment and overall survivorship of women with ovarian cancer.  

YOUR CONTRIBUTIONS have been advancing this research!  Progress since the start of this fundraiser...

Steve and Mike have compared the challenge of finding blood proteins  associated with the earliest development of cancer to being at the edge  of the solar system counting the stripes on a bumblebee in a meadow on  Earth.  

Cutting edge protein biochemistry and computational biology make  this seemingly impossible task of developing cancer blood tests within  reach.  Since the start of this fundraiser, blood  proteins have been studied by three complementary methods in  longitudinal samples from almost 100 women from the unique MGH ovarian  cancer biobank.  The research team identified about 50  high probability candidates of more than 1000 proteins studied.  Two targeted mass spectrometry methods were developed to measure blood concentrations of each of these  candidate blood proteins.  

By comparing each protein from women who developed ovarian cancer with matched controls from the unique MGH biobank, the candidate list was narrowed to 15 blood proteins that appear to increase significantly as cancer develops.  These proteins are currently being tested in entirely separate tissue samples from women who developed cancer to validate them as measures of ovarian  cancer development.

With  generous support from you, researchers anticipate advancing from data  generation to data analysis soon, progressing closer to an ovarian  cancer early detection test.  This work is guiding development of  similar early detection tests for other cancers.