Ovarian cancer is the most lethal and complex of the gynaecological cancers, and yet most people know very little about it. Ovarian cancer can develop and progress very rapidly, and the early symptoms can be so vague, or even non-existent, that it is often not diagnosed until it is well advanced. Finding the right therapy for each individual patient can be challenging, as there are many different subtypes of ovarian cancer, and each one can respond differently to treatment. This is one reason why Professor Anna deFazio’s team at the Westmead Millennium Institute (WMI) have focused their research on ovarian cancer.
Professor deFazio heads up the Gynaecological Oncology Research Group at the WMI Centre for Cancer Research.
Professor deFazio and her team of researchers are guided by two key concepts – translational research and collaboration.
Translational research at WMI aims to rapidly translate findings from the laboratory into clinical care. Each week, Professor deFazio and her group attend “multidisciplinary team meetings”, or MDTs. These meetings include the whole clinical team involved in patient care, and they allow Professor deFazio and her team to understand the issues faced by clinicians in deciding the best course of treatment for each patient, and to make decisions on where to focus their research to achieve the maximum clinical impact.
The Gynaecological Oncology Research Group investigate molecular markers that can predict which treatment will work best for individual patients with ovarian cancer and they are looking for better treatment options.
They are focussing their attention on subtypes that don’t respond very well to usual chemotherapy. For example, a rare subtype known as low-grade serous ovarian cancer often occurs in younger women, and response to treatment is often poor. Professor deFazio’s group have investigated the genetic changes that are typically seen in this type of ovarian cancer. The team has been able to experiment with new drugs that specifically target these genetic changes, including drugs that have shown remarkable responses in melanoma trials. The cross-divisional nature of the Institute and Crown Princess Mary Cancer Centre at Westmead meant that these melanoma drugs could be tested across other cancers – including ovarian – and early results are promising.
Collaboration is also a key feature of the Gynaecological Oncology Research Group.
The Group is part of the Australian Ovarian Cancer Study (AOCS), an Australia-wide collaborative program which internationally. Recent results from AOCS have shown that a higher proportion of ovarian cancer patients carry high-risk genetic mutations in the cancer predisposing genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2, than had previously been suspected. These results have provided the basis for a change in the guidelines for referral to Hereditary Cancer Clinics for genetic testing.
The prominence of Professor deFazio's team in the gynaecological cancer research and treatment community makes her a valued member of the AGCF Scientific Advisory Committee.