Groundbreaking Research in Ovarian Cancer by Anita Unruh Prize Winner Sarah Nersesian


Ovarian cancer outcomes have not meaningfully improved in over 50 years; more than half of those diagnosed today will not be here in 5 years. Marked by only incremental progress, particularly for high-grade serous carcinoma of the ovary (HGSOC), new therapies have offered limited advancements over the years. At Ovarian Cancer Canada, we know that innovation is the key to improving patient outcomes and that, to foster new ideas, we must support researchers at the start of their careers. Emerging minds, like that of Sarah Nersesian, winner of the prestigious 2024 Anita Unruh Prize, prove the value of investing in research trainees; Sarah studies areas of this disease that show outstanding promise when it comes to ovarian cancer treatment and care.

A Discovery That Could Revolutionize Treatment

During her PhD, Nersesian made a groundbreaking discovery that could revolutionize ovarian cancer treatment. “I discovered that immune cells in these tumors aren’t randomly distributed. Instead, they form ‘cellular neighbourhoods’,” she says. This shows that these immune neighbourhoods correlate with important outcomes like response to chemotherapy and overall survival rates. “I’m hopeful that these findings can help develop immunotherapies that generate the best immune response for every patient, offering hope for successful, precise treatments.”

The Anita Unruh Prize: Promoting Excellence in Ovarian Cancer Research

Established in 2016 by Patrick McGrath to honour his wife, Anita Unruh, former Associate Dean and Professor at Dalhousie University, this prize rewards and encourages excellence in trainee research on ovarian cancers and allows us to invest in the next generation of researchers dedicated to this critical field. The award includes a $5000 grant and covers registration and travel expenses to the Canadian Conference on Ovarian Cancer Research.

Sarah Nersesian, PhD stands behind a counter in the lab at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia.

Ovarian Cancer: Understanding the Disease

Diagnosing ovarian cancer remains a challenge, with symptoms often vague and easily mistaken for other conditions. Common ovarian cancer symptoms include bloating, pelvic or abdominal pain, difficulty eating or feeling full quickly, and urinary symptoms such as urgency or frequency. These symptoms are crucial to recognize for early ovarian cancer diagnosis, which can significantly improve the ovarian cancer prognosis and survival rate.

Risk Factors and Screening

Understanding ovarian cancer causes is essential for prevention and early detection. Factors such as genetic mutations (notably BRCA1 and BRCA2), age, family history, and reproductive history play a significant role. We have curated a collection of resources to support your ovarian cancer journey, including guides, worksheets, and videos for you and your friends and family.

Advancements in Treatment and Research

Despite the challenges, we are working our network of highly collaborative researchers and are on the brink of transformative breakthroughs. Nersesian’s work exemplifies the potential of immunotherapies, which harness the body’s immune system to fight cancer more effectively. By identifying specific immune cell patterns within tumors, researchers can develop targeted treatments that improve ovarian cancer survival rates and offer hope to patients worldwide.

Sarah sits at a desk, behind her is a computer displaying a map of ovarian cells.

The Future of Ovarian Cancer Research

Sarah Nersesian’s achievements highlight the critical impact of investing in ovarian cancer research. By supporting researchers through initiatives like the Anita Unruh Prize, we can foster innovations that bring us closer to more effective and personalized treatments.

As we look to the future, continued support for ovarian cancer research is important. We need to understand the complexities of the disease and develop targeted therapies to transform lives.

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