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Researchers develop in-home swab tests for endometrial and ovarian cancer

Early detection can significantly improve treatment outcomes for endometrial and ovarian cancers.
Early detection can significantly improve treatment outcomes for endometrial and ovarian cancers. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

Early detection can significantly improve treatment outcomes for endometrial and ovarian cancers. However, many women are diagnosed only at advanced stages due to the lack of standard screenings for these types of cancer. The incidence rate for endometrial cancer is expected to rise, driven by environmental factors, obesity, and diabetes.

Dr. Marina Walther-Antonio and her colleagues at Mayo Clinic's Center for Individualized Medicine are dedicated to catching these cancers early. Their research focuses on the microbiome, a community of trillions of microorganisms, including bacteria, fungi, and viruses, that play crucial roles in health and disease.


By studying these microorganisms, the team has identified specific microbial signatures linked to endometrial and ovarian cancers. They aim to develop innovative home swab tests for women to assess their susceptibility to these cancers.

"Screening the microbiome for early detection may improve patient outcomes," says Dr. Walther-Antonio, also a researcher at the Departments of Surgery and Obstetrics and Gynecology, and the Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center.

The team discovered a cluster of 17 bacterial microbes associated with endometrial cancer, with Porphyromonas somerae standing out. To validate this connection, they compared Porphyromonas somerae to its closest relative, which is linked to oral cancer.


They hypothesized that Porphyromonas somerae might play a similarly invasive role in endometrial cancer. Extensive testing confirmed that this microbe can invade endometrial cells and alter their function, especially under estrogen exposure, a common risk factor for endometrial cancer.

In their research on ovarian cancer, the team found a distinct distribution of microbes in the reproductive tract of women with the disease. They also revealed changes in the microbiome composition correlated with patient treatment outcomes. These findings may pave the way for using these markers to detect cancer and predict treatment responses.


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According to World Cancer Research Fund International, endometrial cancer is the sixth most common cancer among women globally, with 417,367 new cases and 97,370 deaths reported in 2020. Ovarian cancer ranks eighth, with 313,959 new cases and 207,252 deaths in the same year.

The Mayo scientists are collaborating with Waitematā District Health Board officials to study Pacific Islander and Māori populations in New Zealand, which has one of the highest incidences of endometrial cancer globally. High obesity rates, a known risk factor, likely contribute to this high incidence, but the high rates among younger women remain unexplained.


In the U.S., there is a long-term initiative to engage Black women, particularly those who are postmenopausal. "Black women don't have a higher incidence rate of endometrial cancer, but they have higher mortality and morbidity rates. This is influenced by several factors, including limited access to healthcare. Symptoms frequently go unrecognized or are mistakenly attributed to other conditions, such as fibroids, which are common among Black women," Dr. Walther-Antonio explains.

Through the long-term study, Mayo's scientists hope to engage participants to contribute samples every six months for three years, including vaginal swabs and environmental samples, to identify potential risk factors.

Ultimately, Dr. Walther-Antonio and her team hope to use these microbiome signatures to predict and intervene in the development of cancer before it materializes.


Importance of the findings

Dr. Bakkum-Gamez explains the significance of these EC detection findings as follows:

  • Earlier diagnosis. She says earlier diagnosis leads to better survival for women with EC. This test is being developed with one goal being earlier detection of EC versus later in the cancer's development, improving the chance for a cure.

  • Early signs. The investigators discovered that a gradient of increasing methylation occurs between the precursor to EC — endometrial hyperplasia — and EC. This should allow for methylated DNA markers to be leveraged in the detection of precancerous lesions such that interventions can occur to prevent EC development.

  • Solving for pain. The tampon method of EC detection would ideally provide an alternative for office endometrial biopsy, an often-painful abnormal bleeding investigation procedure in which a healthcare professional uses a long, straw-like instrument introduced through the cervix to obtain endometrial tissue. Though useful, this technique can cause excruciating pain for the patient.


  • Providing an EC test. No minimally invasive EC diagnostic or screening test exists. Though some may think a PAP smear is used for EC detection, this is incorrect, says Dr. Bakkum-Gamez. A tampon-based test introduces a novel, less invasive EC diagnostic option.

  • Offering a comfortable test setting. The investigators also wanted a private, familiar environment for women to test for EC. The tampon-based assay is being designed to be performed at home.

For more science news stories check out our New Innovations section at The Brighter Side of News.


Note: Materials provided above by The Brighter Side of News. Content may be edited for style and length.


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