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Scientists have made a breakthrough in uterine cancer research

Photo: Breakthrough in uterine cancer research
Scientists at the Hunter Medical Research Institute have made a breakthrough in their understanding of uterine cancer that could save lives.

Australian research has identified a protein that allows endometrial cancer cells to spread from the uterus to adjoining organs with often fatal consequences.

Dr Pradeep Tanwar, from the University of Newcastle and Hunter Medical Research Institute (HMRI), believes the finding is a significant breakthrough in the fight against uterine cancer, the most common type of gynaecological cancer.

"If the tumour is detected early enough a hysterectomy can be performed for a complete cure, but it becomes much more serious when metastasis occurs," Dr Tanwar said.
"The uterus sits in the peritoneal cavity along with the intestine, liver and stomach and there is a physical spread of cancer to adjoining areas, almost like a fire. It doesn't need to get into the blood stream."

Endometrial cancers begin in the lining of the uterus, or endometrium, and account for about 75 per cent of all cases.

Also called cancer of the uterus, nearly 500 women died from the disease in 2014.

Using laboratory models and tumour samples from the Hunter Cancer Biobank, researchers screened for genetic differences between the invading cancer cells and those that don't metastasise from the primary tumour site.

They were able to pinpoint the protein signalling pathway known as a TGF beta and target it with a repurposed drug to stop the cancer cells from spreading.

This would mean the cancer can potentially be confined and surgically removed.

"The drug we're using was developed for arthritis and fibrosis but we have repurposed it for cancer because there are some pathological similarities," Dr Tanwar said.

"In our models we applied the drug after the primary cancer had developed in the uterus lining. We found it doesn't have much effect on the primary growth but it stopped the metastasis which was our main goal."

"This may eventually allow surgeons to remove the uterus at a later stage if an early diagnosis isn't made."

Dr Tanwar conducted his initial research at Harvard University in Boston.

He is now collaborating with a team from the UON Gynaecology Oncology Group and clinicians from John Hunter Hospital and Calvary Mater Newcastle.

The group is now aiming to determine which patients would be most suitable for the treatment.

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