Ovarian cancer is the fifth most common cause of death for women in the United States, with 14,180 deaths last year. One of the reasons the disease is so deadly is that early detection and prognosis is very difficult. Despite medical and technological advances, doctors still don’t know what to look for in screenings. Ashley Odai-Afotey ’15 is hoping to help fill this gap in the detection process so that treatment is possible before the cancer spreads and becomes more difficult to control.
Her interest in cellular biology began in her freshman-year high school biology class: “I was fascinated by how cells can create, but also destroy, such incredible structures that make our bodies function. I’ve really enjoyed continuing to pursue my passion here,” she says.
Odai-Afotey works in Professor Alexander Nikitin’s lab, Biomedical Sciences. Her objective is to locate where ovarian cancer develops, information that would make for effective early detection processes. “If localized, there is a 90 percent chance the patient will have a 5-year survival rate,” the researcher says; “I’m looking to find the changes that occur in women’s cells when cancer is present—the signature, if you will—so that doctors know what to look for.”
Where to Look?
One of the first problems she came across in her research was not knowing where to look, much less what to look for—controversy crops up in the field over whether the cancer begins in the fallopian tubes, the ovaries, or perhaps somewhere entirely different.
In search of a place to start, Odai-Afotey looked to research already being pursued in the Nikitin lab. Fellow researchers had used mice to identify the hilum region of the ovaries, a junction zone where two tissues come together. Here they monitored stem cell activity and characteristics to see what changes occurred when cells became cancerous. Her question soon became: “How do we analyze the stem cell marker signature in human patient samples and compare it to the signature found in mice? Essentially, we had to look at human fallopian tubes and ovaries.”
The ultimate goal of the research is to identify distinct patterns in normal and cancerous fallopian tubes to find what occurs when cells transition from normal to cancerous.
With the aid of collaborators abroad, Odai-Afotey was granted access to human fallopian tubes and ovaries from deceased patients who had had other diseases. As in the mice, she located markers for the stem cells in the hilum junction zones. She hoped to find patterns in the non-cancerous cells that might be disrupted by cancerous activity. “I found that some stem cell markers change their expression when cancer is introduced into the cell—it’s an exciting first step to being able to locate the cancerous cells themselves!”
Despite having to comb through stem cells for markers, or “signatures,” mostly on her own, Odai-Afotey uses a software program that allows her to virtually analyze junction zones for stem cell activity. She applies an antibody to the tissues, which will stain one color for positive (presence of stem cells) and another for negative (lack of stem cells). From there, she can more closely analyze what the stem cells in a given region are doing, and how they change when cancerous activity begins.
An Optimistic Outlook
The ultimate goal of the research is to identify distinct patterns in normal and cancerous fallopian tubes to find what occurs when cells transition from normal to cancerous. This would allow doctors and clinics to detect the cancer early on and to significantly increase patients’ chances of survival. If a few key markers, rather than a slew of symptoms that are all too often misdiagnosed, were identified as the signatures of cancerous growth, ovarian cancer’s high death toll would be dramatically reduced. Odai-Afotey, despite being a senior this year, hopes to continue her work on ovarian cancer research and believes a solution might be within reach. “There’s still a lot of work to be done,” she said, “but I’m optimistic that what we’ve found at the lab will add to the growing body of knowledge about how ovarian cancer arises, and hopefully lead to a breakthrough soon.”