A pilot study led by a University of Virginia School of Medicine researcher suggests that tampons could help detect ovarian cancer.
“Gynecologic malignancies such as cervical cancer can be detected at early stages through regular pap smears, but similar screening is not available for ovarian cancer, which often presents in an advanced stage when the cancer has spread,” said the study’s principal investigator, Charles Landen Jr., MD, a gynecologic oncologist at UVA Cancer Center.
For the study, women who were expected to undergo surgery for potential ovarian cancer inserted a tampon the night before their surgery. Of the women who had ovarian cancer and had intact fallopian tubes, 60 percent had DNA derived from the tumor in the tampon.
Ovarian cancer is often fatal when not caught early. According to the National Cancer Institute, 61 percent of patients are diagnosed when the disease has metastasized, when the five-year survival rates are only 27.4 percent. In 2014, an expected 21,000 women will be diagnosed as having ovarian cancer.
“While more research is needed to improve the sensitivity of the test, the fact that in some cases tumor DNA was found in the vaginal canal is promising,” Landen said.
The next step is to improve the specificity of the test so that no women with cancer would be missed and to test women with early or even precancerous disease to see if these cells are also shed into the vaginal tract. DNA testing is still too expensive for screening the general population, but that may change in coming years.
“This is exciting proof that cancer cells can make it through the gynecologic tract and be detected in a noninvasive way with something as simple as a tampon,” Landen said.
The study, published in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology, was done in collaboration with Johns Hopkins University and the University of Alabama at Birmingham. It was authored by Britt K. Erickson, Isaac Kinde, Zachary C. Dobbin, Yuxuan Wang, Jovana Y. Martin, Ronald D. Alvarez, Michael G. Conner, Warner K. Huh, Richard B. S. Roden, Kenneth W. Kinzler, Nickolas Papadopoulos, Bert Vogelstein, Luis A. Diaz Jr. and Landen.