Significant step forward for endometrial cancer

QIMR Berghofer-led research has identified genes that appear to increase a person’s risk of endometrial cancer, in findings which could help the discovery of new treatments and therapies.

The researchers say new treatment options are needed as the disease becomes increasingly prevalent, with more than 3,000 new endometrial cancer cases and 550 deaths in Australia each year.

Endometrial cancer, affecting the lining of the womb or uterus, is the most common type of gynaecological cancer in the western world.

Lesley McQuire was diagnosed with endometrial cancer at the age of 52. She was taken aback, but because of a family history with cancer, was not surprised by her diagnosis.

Lesley had a complete hysterectomy, and with two rare subtype tumours discovered, she was told on her birthday that the prognosis was, at best, five years. That was 20 years ago.

“Every year when I wake up on my birthday, I say thank you researchers! Without medical research I wouldn’t be here,” Lesley said.

Since her recovery, Lesley has been a strong advocate for gynaecological cancer and it is through this she has become familiar with endometrial cancer research and the team at QIMR Berghofer. “I’m very excited about the research,” Lesley said.

Lesley McQuire is an endometrial cancer survivor and research advocate.

Dr Dylan Glubb and Dr Tracey O’Mara are the scientists leading the endometrial cancer study at QIMR Berghofer.

The study, led by QIMR Berghofer Associate Professors Tracy O’Mara and Dylan Glubb, analysed summary data on more than 100,000 individuals from the Endometrial Cancer Association Consortium – the world’s largest genetic study of endometrial cancer.

Their study, published in the journal Communications Biology, also involved researchers from the Queensland University of Technology, the Mayo Clinic in the United States, Belgium’s VIB-KU Leuven Center for Cancer Biology and Germany’s Hannover Medical School.

The researchers used statistical methods to identify eight genes that appear to affect susceptibility to endometrial cancer.

“In addition to identifying genes that appear to affect endometrial cancer risk, we also identified the actual tissues that some of these genes may act in,” Associate Professor O’Mara said.

“This is quite exciting, as this information can give us an important insight into the underlying biology of endometrial cancer and its development.

“Endometrial cancer rates are rising in many countries so it’s expected to be an ongoing and increasing problem, yet it is still under-researched compared to other cancers. This study represents a significant step forward in increasing our understanding of this gynaecological cancer, and developing more treatment options,” Associate Professor O’Mara said.

The US Food and Drug Administration has approved only three drugs for endometrial cancer treatment since 1971, and the best treatment can be a hysterectomy – an invasive surgery that may not be feasible for all patients.

Associate Professor Glubb said they had already used their results to identify potential new therapies, including a drug that is currently undergoing clinical trials for use in other cancers.

“Now that we have identified potential risk genes, we can search for drugs that target the products of those genes or counteract the changes in gene expression linked to endometrial cancer susceptibility,” he said.

The QIMR Berghofer researchers have been working with a company that uses artificial intelligence to find drugs which target the proteins encoded by identified genes.

“The number of women diagnosed with endometrial cancer each year is on the rise. Researchers know that due to lifestyle choices and obesity, there are more women in Australia experiencing endometrial cancer,” Lesley said.

“In the future, these genes identified can be tested by other chemotherapy drugs and provide more options for treatment. This discovery may also turn out to be a game changer in identifying women at risk and the types of drugs available to treat endometrial cancer,” she said.

A retired Director of Nursing, it is Lesley’s own experience with endometrial cancer that drives her to represent women and advocate for better outcomes for women diagnosed and treated with endometrial cancer and other gynaecological cancers.

“I can’t begin to thank researchers and the people who support medical research because what they do is life-saving. Medical research is really, really important. It helps people be disease free,” Lesley said.

Click here for Digital Version Click here to Subscribe