Neutralizing ‘delinquent’ protein may be the key to treating ovarian cancer
Women’s health – Ovarian cancer
Cell biologist Dr. Lynne-Marie Postovit’s ovarian cancer research focuses on the delinquent activity of a protein called Nodal.
The Nodal protein has been identified as a culprit in a number of cancers, including brain, prostate and breast cancer. It appears to be connected to ovarian cancer, as well. Think of Nodal as an Energizer Bunny that just keeps on going, creating havoc in the human body.
The protein serves a critical function during early embryonic development. When the embryo is only four or five days old — before it’s even had time to nestle in the uterus — the protein is already sending marching orders to stem cells, an undifferentiated mass of cells smaller than a pinhead. The stem cells respond to the messages by developing into different kinds of cells — blood, heart, bone, skin, muscle and heart cells, for example — and taking on specialized functions. Once this differentiation occurs, the Nodal protein’s job is officially over.
“Nodal proteins are not normally active in adults, but for some reason they are reawakened in cancers,” says Dr. Postovit. “They enable cancer cells to behave like stem cells, growing forever, surviving in hostile environments and evading treatment. We want to gain a better understanding of how and why the protein does this.”
Thanks to the support of the Royal Alexandra Hospital Foundation, Dr. Postovit holds the Sawin-Baldwin Chair in Ovarian Cancer Research. She also holds the Dr. Anthony Noujaim Legacy Oncology Chair and recently received an Alberta Innovates - Health Solutions Translation Health Chair in Cancer Epigenetics.
Dr. Postovit favours a team approach in tackling the deadly cancer, which is difficult to detect in the early stages and to treat later on. Eighty per cent of ovarian cancers are not diagnosed until the later stages, however, when survival rates drop to around 30 per cent. Dr. Postovit has assembled a team that is made up of some of the top researchers in Alberta in oncology, pathology and gynecology to work together on detecting the cancer earlier and discovering new treatments.
She is already known for her trail blazing research in breast and prostate cancer, and has produced three patents, one of which is now in clinical trials for the treatment of prostate cancer. In turning her attention to ovarian cancer, Dr. Postovit acknowledges that she has taken on a big challenge.
“It’s humbling to work with a cancer where the statistics have not improved that much,” she says. “I think that we’ll make much faster progress now that researchers and the public are paying more attention to it (ovarian cancer). Advocacy can make a big difference in moving things along faster. Look at the tremendous progress that has been made in breast cancer over the past 30 years where the survival rate is now 90 per cent.” Dr. Postovit, an Edmonton Woman of Vision in 2014, looks forward to seeing similar breakthroughs in ovarian cancer. Undoubtedly, she will be one of researchers leading the way.
“My goal is to improve the lives of the thousands of women who are cancer patients. I always keep that in the back of my mind.”
Postovit’s research is funded by the generous support of the Lois Hole Hospital for Women, through WCHRI.