Ovarian cancer is considered to be a silent killer and claims more than 14,000 lives every year with some 22,000 new cases diagnosed every year. It has few, and extremely vague, symptoms. By the time a woman knows she has it, the cancer is often advanced and difficult to treat.
Unlike breast, cervical or colon cancer, there is no reliable screening test to detect the disease. Most ovarian cancer screenings produce high numbers of false positive results, which require doctors to perform invasive surgeries to rule out cancer.
This new study "is a ray of excitement," said researcher Dr. Karen Lu, a professor of gynecologic oncology at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
For the new study, published in the journal Cancer, researchers recruited post-menopausal women between the ages of 50 and 74 who had no personal or family history of ovarian cancer. Women were screened, on average, for about four years.
The new screening method combines two existing tools, a blood test that measures a protein shed by tumor cells called CA-125 and an ultrasound exam that helps doctors see the ovaries.
Those two tests have been used together before without success. The current research, however, takes into account fluctuations in a woman's blood test results. The important thing isn't any single measure of CA-125 in the blood, but how it changes over time.
Don't expect to see this new screening method in the clinic just yet. Researchers say more data is needed, and it appears they'll be getting it.
A much larger study comprised of more than 200,000 women is under way in the United Kingdom. Preliminary results from that trial, released in 2009, were positive. Now researchers are waiting for the final results, due out in 2015.