We spoke with Animesh Barua, PhD, at Rush University Medical Center, who received a grant from the Foundation in spring 2008 to examine early detection of ovarian cancer by contrast-enhanced ultrasound imaging. We caught up with Dr. Barua to hear more about his research and the importance of funding studies in prevention and early detection.
1. What led you to the field of ovarian cancer research?
In my childhood, I saw one of my relatives die young after suffering for months with a disease that caused excruciating pain. At that time I was told she was suffering from cancer. Later on, I understood that she had ovarian cancer (OVCA) for which there is neither an accurate early-detection test nor a cure. This event has had an impact on my choice to pursue a career in biomedical research.
Later, during my graduate studies on the endocrine-immune regulation of ovarian functions in laying hens, I observed that several hens in my study developed OVCA spontaneously. I then gathered information on OVCA in humans, and I found that it is an aggressive gynecological cancer usually diagnosed in late stages and associated with a high rate of mortality. Currently, there is no effective test for early detection, and the symptoms of early OVCA are non-specific; however, the rate of survival is remarkably high when OVCA is detected early.
Challenges in studying changes associated with early stages of OVCA make it difficult to develop an effective early-detection test. Literature on OVCA shows how hard it is to establish an accurate test and to develop effective therapies without an animal model of spontaneous OVCA. Commonly used rodent models do not develop OVCA spontaneously, and observations from induced OVCA in rodents are difficult to translate into clinical use. Together with my childhood memories, deciding to meet the challenge to develop effective early detection of OVCA has brought me to the field of ovarian cancer research.
2. Tell us about your research to establish an early detection method for ovarian cancer based on contrast-enhanced ultrasound imaging.
Currently, serum levels of CA-125 (cancer antigen 125, a protein in blood) and traditional ultrasound (TVUS) imaging are used to diagnose OVCA. Due to its lack of sensitivity, particularly for detecting early stage OVCA and its lack of specificity, especially in premenopausal women, serum levels of CA-125 often give false positive results for OVCA, leading to further screening or unnecessary surgery. On the other hand, a false negative from CA-125 testing may keep patients from getting needed treatment. TVUS imaging detects solid tumor masses in the ovary and their associated vascular architecture (network of blood vessels). However, with the current limits to imaging resolution, TVUS is unable to detect smaller tissue masses or blood vessels in the ovary associated with early stage OVCA. Thus, enhancing the resolution of TVUS imaging is a way to improve the detection of OVCA in early stages.
Contrast agents are chemicals developed to enhance the visualization of blood vessels by TVUS imaging. Using contrast agents, we are working to establish a combined non-invasive imaging and blood test method for the detection of early-stage OVCA-related blood vessels in ovarian neoangiogenesis.
Check back next week for Part II of Dr. Barua’s Researcher Q&A!