Yearly Blood Tests May Catch Ovarian Cancer Early

Aug 27, 2013
Originally published on August 27, 2013 3:02 pm

A new paper in the journal Cancer says a way of screening for ovarian cancer appears to catch tumors early.

The University of Texas researchers found that annual blood tests recording levels of a protein created by most ovarian tumors, called CA-125, can alert doctors early.

Each year, about 20,000 women in the United States get ovarian cancer, and about 14,000 die from it annually.

Dr. Karen Lu, professor and chair of the Department of Gynecologic Oncology and Reproductive Medicine at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, is co-author of the study.

She says that even thought the findings are promising, it’s necessary to know if it actually reduces deaths from ovarian cancer, before turning it into a routine screening for women.

A large study in the United Kingdom is looking into that question, and Lu says we should know the results by 2015.


  • Dr. Karen Lu, professor of gynecologic oncology at the University of Texas.
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From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson. It's HERE AND NOW. A report out this week in the journal Cancer says a new method of testing for ovarian cancer can catch growing tumors early. Researchers at the University of Texas published a study showing that annual blood tests looking for a protein created by ovarian tumors called CA-125 can alert doctors early. Each year about 20,000 women in the U.S. get ovarian cancer, and about 14,000 die from it every year. Dr. Karen Lu is professor and chair of the gynecologic oncology at the University of Texas and is co-author of the study, joins us now. Welcome.

DR. KAREN LU: Thank you.

HOBSON: So this idea of looking for this protein in a blood test is not new. What makes the annual test so effective in your study?

LU: So it's not just the annual test, but what we're doing is we're looking at the value over time. So we're personalizing the screening strategy and saying that each woman is going to establish their own baseline. So if we start to notice something that is rising above that baseline, that can be an early indicator that she may have ovarian cancer.

HOBSON: In the paper you write that this testing strategy has a 99.9 percent accuracy rate. How many women did you test, and how many cancers slipped through the cracks?

LU: So we had over 4,000 women in this study. We actually did not miss any cases of invasive ovarian cancer, the ovarian cancer that is very deadly. When we say that we had a 99.9 percent specificity, what that's referring to is that we had very few false positives. So the important thing is that when you screen for a cancer in the general population, you can actually cause harm as well. We think that screening is all good, but you can also cause harm by doing unnecessary surgeries. One of the most important things for a screening strategy in the general population is that you limit the number of false positives and subsequent kind of unnecessary surgeries.

HOBSON: When do you think women will start to hear about annual blood tests from their doctors for this?

LU: So absolutely we feel very strongly that women should not be asking their physicians to do this test. And we really believe that we need to wait until we have the answer about whether this strategy decreases deaths from ovarian cancer. That's the gold standard that we use. And luckily the United Kingdom is doing this study, so we'll have the answer in about 2015.

HOBSON: Do you see this as something that will dramatically down the road reduce the rate of ovarian cancer?

LU: If in fact the United Kingdom study is positive and we institute general population screening in all postmenopausal women, then I do anticipate that we'll be picking up ovarian cancer at a much earlier stage, and at that point our cure rates are excellent.

HOBSON: Do you find that patients are hesitant to get these annual blood tests?

LU: No. I think, if anything, women have wanted to do it and ask their physicians for it. But for ovarian cancer, if we have an abnormal screening result, we actually have to do a surgery. So the only way we know if it's cancer is to remove the ovaries. And so we don't really want to be doing unnecessary surgeries on women. So I think it's important that we tell women that we need to have the answer before we initiate this.

HOBSON: Dr. Karen Lu is professor of gynecologic oncology at the University of Texas and co-author of a new study showing that annual blood tests may help reveal ovarian cancer in its early stages. Dr. Lu, thank you so much for joining us.

LU: Thanks so much.

HOBSON: And still to come on HERE AND NOW, as firefighters struggle to bring the Yosemite Rim Fire under control, what can be done to save the ancient sequoia trees in that area, or maybe they will save themselves. You'll hear about it next. HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.