I’m a junior doctor in obstetrics and gynaecology. I plan to specialise in gynaecological oncology, and at the moment I’m working full time on research funded by Target Ovarian Cancer and the Medical Research Council, based at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge.
I got interested in research during my foundation training, part of which was a research position working in ovarian cancer at Bart’s Cancer Institute in London. My current project is all about biomarkers in ovarian cancer.
What are biomarkers?
At its simplest, a biomarker is the objective measure of the presence of a condition. Scientists in the 1980s found one for ovarian cancer – the CA125 protein. They found it was possible to measure rising levels of CA125 in the blood of some women who had a diagnosis of ovarian cancer. But CA125 can be non-specific (for example, women who are on their periods can have raised levels of CA125), so we need something better.
Traditionally, scientists have looked at a lot of protein biomarkers, but we are now looking at alternative types of biomarkers, like the one I am researching - circulating tumour DNA (ctDNA).
What I’m working on at the moment
I’m working on diagnostic biomarkers – they are about disease identification and looking at measures that could be used to diagnose a condition. Circulating tumour DNA means fragments of DNA from the tumour that we can find in blood samples from patients. We also look at cervical screening samples for evidence of tumour cells, a different kind of diagnostic biomarker.
Looking at circulating tumour DNA gives us the opportunity to look at biomarkers that are more specific to cancer, meaning that testing for them will be more targeted and accurate. The ctDNA is also more sensitive, meaning that when we measure it we can detect it in smaller quantities and more accurately – for example we’ve already discovered that the ctDNA can be detected in women diagnosed with a recurrence of ovarian cancer. Now we want to see if we can detect it in women before their very first diagnosis. If we can, it could mean we’ve found a more accurate test to help diagnose ovarian cancer than the ones we already have.
Doctors regularly see women who have a raised CA125 level, but who don't have ovarian cancer. But we also see women with a diagnosis of ovarian cancer who have experienced a delayed diagnosis, because tests aren’t clear enough. What I want is a test that can get straight to the point and diagnose ovarian cancer straight away, using ctDNA.
I’m currently collecting blood and cervical samples from women who have just been referred to hospital. I’m also collecting samples before and after people have surgery. It’s important to have as much information at our fingertips as possible – so I’m looking at samples from women before and after chemotherapy too.
In the end, I hope my research will speed up diagnosis
In the end, we hope to develop either a blood or a cervical smear-based test, that could be used by GPs in combination with a CA125 test and ultrasound scans to rule out ovarian cancer. It could also have other uses – for example before primary surgery as a test to see who needs surgery from a specialist, and who doesn’t need such a big surgical intervention.
It's really important that Target Ovarian Cancer funded this project. If we can find better tests that can be done in the quickest time possible, that's going to benefit all these women. I hope it has a big impact on women in the future.
A lot has been done in research but there is so much more to do. Research spend on ovarian cancer in the UK has dropped by a third in five years. This is why I'm supporting this campaign - together we can fund life-saving research to help double ovarian cancer survival rates. It’s time to TAKE OVAR.
Liz is one of the the models in our campaign It's time to TAKE OVAR. She spoke to us backstage at the photoshoot this summer, watch her video.
Join the campaign and together we can make sure women in the UK have the best chances of survival.