Ovarian cancer is not one disease, it represents a variety of diseases; subtypes that react differently to treatment. Low-grade serous cancer is among the rare forms, comprising less than 10 per cent of cases.

Low-grade serous cancer is difficult to treat, as it does not typically respond to standard chemotherapy like more common forms of ovarian cancer. Research on this subtype has been extremely limited. But Ovarian Cancer Canada’s OvCAN initiative is changing that.

OvCAN is prioritizing research on rare subtypes of ovarian cancer like this one. Among the projects focused on low-grade serous cancer is work by Dr. Mark Carey, Clinical Professor, Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, University of British Columbia.

Dr. Carey

Dr. Carey and his team are developing new models, tools that mimic the behavior of low-grade serous cancer cells, so that scientists can improve understanding of this disease and test new drugs in advance of clinical trials. The team is also detailing the unique characteristics of each model, so that each one can be shared across Canada and beyond to inform related studies. Because of this work, there will be more tools for researchers focused on low-grade serous cancer.

“Even within low-grade serous cancer, there are different subtypes,” explains Dr. Carey. “For instance, some have hormone receptors and others don’t, and this affects how a cancer grows. We know there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to diseases like this. So if we want to develop treatments for specific types, we need the right models.”

To this point, models for low-grade serous cancer have been few and far between. This gap has stood in the way of research progress. Of course, another barrier has been finding money to get started. But last year, OvCAN provided Dr. Carey with funding to September 2022.

“We’re very pleased with the support from Ovarian Cancer Canada, through the OvCAN initiative,” says Dr. Carey. “Funding for work like this isn’t generally supported by traditional research grants, particularly when it comes to rare cancers. Nonetheless, the question of how to better treat low-grade serous cancer is a pressing one. And we can’t find answers without scientific models.”

While research is typically a competitive field, the scientific models funded by OvCAN are shared across Canada and internationally in efforts to provide researchers with the tools they need to target treatment case-by-case. Dr. Carey hopes that some of the models he is working on will eventually be used to predict which drugs work best for women with low-grade serous cancer.

“Ultimately, we hope that our models will enable oncologists to predict the effectiveness of various drugs. So that we know the best treatment for a women diagnosed with low-grade serous cancer, right from the start of her journey,” he explains. “This is particularly important for rare cancers because they are different from the more common types, and they need to be treated in different ways. Women with this subtype have fewer treatment options and fewer opportunities to participate in clinical trials. The need for progress is urgent.”

When Dr. Carey started his research there were only two groups internationally, who were investigating low-grade serous cancer. Now he is in touch with about 18 groups from around the world and often receives calls from researchers looking for models to support drug testing and further studies.

“The pace of research in this area is accelerating as a direct result of the availability of models like the ones we are working on,” says Dr. Carey. “While there’s a lot of work to do, having interested individuals and eager collaborators brings promise for significant breakthroughs in drug development and ultimately treatment.”

Currently, OvCAN is funding 23 projects to develop and share scientific models. Many more projects are underway on new treatments and for clinical trials. The Patient Partners, who are women with ovarian cancer informing research with their personal perspective and lived experiences, and scientists guiding this work are prioritizing rare forms of ovarian cancer in hopes of making the greatest impact against this disease as quickly as possible. Because there is no time to wait.

Ovarian Cancer Canada’s OvCAN research initiative is the result of advocacy efforts that successfully culminated in a historic $10 million investment in ovarian cancer research by the Government of Canada. To help ensure this work continues, please donate at ovariancanada.org/donate.

The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the views of Health Canada.