Discovery paves way for improved ovarian cancer care

28 September 2018
Key Researchers
Centre Head
Professor Clare Scott and Dr Olga Kondrashova
Research led by (L-R) Dr Olga Kondrashova and Professor
Clare Scott is helping to match ovarian cancer patients with
the right treatment for their cancer.
Melbourne scientists have revealed a better way to identify which patients should respond to powerful ovarian cancer drugs called PARP inhibitors (PARPi), resolving an important question in ovarian cancer care about why some patients respond to the drugs, while others do not.

The findings add to a vital ‘checklist’ that helps match ovarian cancer patients with the right therapy for their cancer. Being able to offer targeted treatment is crucial for patient survival rates which have seen little improvement over the past 30 years. 

The study, published in Nature Communications, was led by Professor Clare Scott, Dr Olga Kondrashova, Dr Matthew Wakefield and Dr Monique Topp from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute; in collaboration with Associate Professor Alexander Dobrovic from the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute and LaTrobe University ­­­School of Medicine.

At a glance

  • A new ovarian cancer study could help to better match patients with the appropriate therapy for their cancer.
  • The research identified subtle but important epigenetic differences among ovarian cancer patients that could influence their response to treatment.
  • There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach for treating ovarian cancer so being able to offer more personalised care is crucial for patient survival rates which have seen little improvement over 30 years.

Subtle yet significant differences

Professor Scott said it was well documented that PARPi could only work when the cancer’s DNA repair process wasn’t functioning as it should.

“For the past two decades, it was thought that ovarian cancer patients whose cancer’s BRCA1 genes are ‘silenced’ – or methylated – had faulty DNA repair and therefore were good candidates for PARPi treatment. Yet the puzzling thing was we were unable to predict the patients for whom the drugs would work,” she said.

Dr Kondrashova said the ‘Eureka moment’ came when the researchers discovered epigenetic differences in some BRCA1 methylated cancers. These subtle yet significant differences explained why some patients would respond to the drug, while others would not.

“It was suddenly clear that all patients in the group could not be treated the same way. We discovered that some of the patients had what could be described as ‘incomplete’ BRCA1 methylation where not every gene copy was ‘switched off’.

“As it turns out, incomplete methylation isn’t enough to cause faulty DNA repair in cancer cells which explains why PARPi isn’t going to be effective.

“At the same time, those in the group who had ‘complete’ BRCA1 methylation in their cancer were responsive to PARPi confirming to us that the treatment should not be discounted,” Dr Kondrashova said.

‘Snap shots’ at key points

Professor Scott said the findings were a result of methodologies developed by Associate Professor Dobrovic at the Olivia Newwton-John Cancer Resarch Institute that could accurately determine the degree of BRCA1 methylation, as well as quality data sets and sophisticated laboratory models called patient derived xenografts (PDX models).

“PDX models are powerful because they mimic the complexity of human tumours at key stages as the cancer progresses. Our models are developed with cancerous tissue donated by patients from the Royal Women’s Hospital, the Royal Melbourne Hospital and the Peter Mac at the time of their cancer diagnosis, or prior to and after treatment with PARPi.

“Like ‘snap shots’ in time, PDX models allow us to accurately track how each patient’s cancer is changing or responding to treatment. The success of this approach shows that a long-term, detailed analysis is invaluable for providing better patient care.”

No ‘one size fits all’

Professor Scott said understanding the various reasons for PARPi resistance was an invaluable approach for developing better, more personalised patient care.

“There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach for ovarian cancer care. We need to keep making these strides in understanding so we can better match patients with the right treatment for their cancer,” she said.

The research was conducted in affiliation with the University of Melbourne and was funded by the Cancer Council Victoria Sir Edward Dunlop Research Fellowship, the Stafford Fox Medical Research Foundation, the Victorian Cancer Agency, Cancer Australia, the National Breast Cancer Foundation, and the National Health and Medical Research Council.

Clinical trials information

Professor Scott’s laboratory is currently involved in studies linked to two clinical trials on PARP inhibitors – the EMBRACE study and the SOLACE 2 study. Find out more about these trials on the Cancer Council Victoria website and at the Australian New Zealand Clinical Trials Registry.

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