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Ovarian cancer treatments improving survival

January 03, 2017 | UCI Health
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Ovarian cancer has always been a challenging disease to fight. It has no screening test and symptoms are minimal at first and ambiguous later.

As a result, ovarian cancer is most often discovered at a late stage, after it has spread to the pelvis and abdomen. It has long been one of the more deadly cancers.

Ovarian cancer survival

Fortunately, new treatments are starting to change these outcomes. UCI Health is at the forefront of new ovarian cancer treatments as well as promising investigational treatments.

“We don’t know everything we need to know about ovarian cancer yet,” says Dr. Robert E. Bristow, a UCI Health gynecological oncologist, chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and an international expert in ovarian cancer. “But improvements in ovarian cancer have been incremental over time.

“And the calculations for survival start with whether a woman receives state-of-the-art treatment or not. If she receives state-of-the-art treatment, the odds for survival are a lot better.” Related: Ovarian cancer survival can depend on income and location ›

New type of chemotherapy

Perhaps the most significant advance in ovarian cancer treatment has been intraperitoneal chemotherapy (IP), in which:

  • Chemotherapy is pumped directly into the patient’s abdominal cavity via a catheter.
  • The abdomen is massaged to circulate the solution and reach hidden cancer cells.
  • Then the solution is drained and the abdomen rinsed.

IP therapy has been shown to improve the chances for long-term survival and is now considered the standard of care for ovarian cancer patients.

In recent years, some physicians have heated the chemicals to increase their effectiveness. This treatment — known as hyperthermic intraoperative peritoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC) — is performed at the conclusion of surgery to remove the cancer, and it can also be used in patients whose cancers have returned. 

UCI Health is taking it one step further by using HIPEC as a frontline treatment for newly diagnosed patients and studying its effectiveness. View the clinical trial ›

The theory is that HIPEC not only improves the delivery of chemotherapy, but also makes cancer cells more susceptible to treatment.

New ovarian cancer medications

HIPEC is not the only new tool aimed at curing ovarian cancer.

Some patients receive a medication called Avastin, which works by blocking the growth of new blood vessels and substances that promote cancer growth. The drug is now prescribed to patients whose cancer has become resistant to chemotherapy.

UCI Health researchers are studying whether Avastin may also be useful for any patients with stage IV ovarian cancer and are using Avastin in combination with other drugs to treat a number of gynecologic cancers.

Moreover, UCI Health researchers will soon launch two new Phase 3 clinical trials to study the effectiveness of an immunotherapy drug, nivolumab, in fighting ovarian cancer. Immunotherapy drugs are aimed at prompting the body’s own immune system to recognize and destroy cancer, in the same way that the immune system fights off a cold or flu virus.

The therapy constitutes one of the most promising areas in cancer treatment today and has already proven effective for several types of cancers, including melanoma and lung cancer.

New studies and clinical trials

Another ongoing study takes a much different approach.

UCI Health cancer researcher Lari Wenzel studies treatment decision-making and quality of life during ovarian cancer treatment and into survivorship. Related: Seeking the secrets to ovarian cancer survival ›

She is also the co-leader of an international study looking at long-term ovarian cancer survivors to try to identify psychosocial and lifestyle factors that might differ between short-term and long-term survivors.

“With ovarian cancer, it’s so important to have the correct operation and access to clinical trials,” says Dr. Krishnansu S. Tewari, a UCI Health gynecological oncologist and director of research in gynecologic oncology. Related: 5 ways women can get better ovarian cancer care ›

“At centers like UCI Health, we have surgical teams, multidisciplinary teams that include liver and thoracic surgeons, who do whatever we can to remove all of the cancer. UCI Health physicians really have dedicated a lot of our time to the science of surgery and these diseases.”

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