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UBC Reports | Vol. 51 | No. 7 | Jul. 7, 2005

New Ovarian Cancer Test on Horizon

Rejection of first discovery, spurs development of better technique

By Ai Lin Choo

A medical researcher’s desire to help others can often be a painstaking adventure in patience, says Nelly Auersperg, a UBC professor in Obstetrics and Gynaecology.

She learned this the hard way nine years ago when she realized her newly discovered technology -- one that could tell if a woman had an increased chance of getting ovarian cancer and possibly help prevent it -- would never make it as common procedure.

In 1998, Auersperg found that tissue cultures taken from some women with family histories of ovarian cancer were significantly different from others. She was certain that if developed into a test, there could be a way to predict if these women would fall prey to the disease at a future date.

“I was so thrilled. There’s currently no way to detect early stages of ovarian cancer because there are no early symptoms of it. That’s why it’s known as deadly, because it’s almost always diagnosed at too late a stage,” she explained.

Auersperg, who has been researching cervix and ovarian cancer all of her career, immediately contacted the University-Industry Liaison Office (UILO) and patented the technology.

The office was similarly hopeful, but soon found that getting companies to share in their excitement would prove slightly more challenging.

Because the test would require scraping the ovaries to get a tissue sample, there was an overall reluctance on the part of companies to get involved, says Barbara Campbell, a UILO technology transfer manager.

“When we tried to contact them to market the idea and develop it, we kept getting asked the same questions. Could the average hospital technician perform the procedure? Could it be put into a test kit? Could it be done as a non-invasive procedure? The answer was ‘no’ to all of them,” said Campbell.

The office realized that unless the idea could be turned into a quick and easy kit, there would be little interest in developing the technology.

“Commercial off-shoots are great because researchers get to see their work materialize into public use,” said Campbell. “But this technology was a simple reminder that even though UBC researchers come up with the most innovative of ideas, they do not always lend themselves to the marketplace.”

Campbell explained that even when companies do come on board, an idea can take anywhere from two to 10 years to materialize. At UBC, the technology must first go through a thorough assessment by the UILO, and the office will only take it to the development stage if it is proven to be both marketable and patentable.

Researchers are often left frustrated because soliciting company interest and investment can often be the make or break point of a new discovery, said Auersperg. While her results have been tremendously successful from a journal-publishing point of view, she says scientists have to rely on industry to take their research to the next level.

“We simply do not have the resources to do any further development on our own. A medical technology company, for example, will have maybe 20 to 30 scientists working on one thing with considerable sums of money backing their efforts,” she explained. “Yes, I was disappointed that my research couldn’t be marketed, but no, I didn’t give up.”

And Auersperg’s efforts may still pay off. With the help of Michelle Woo, a PhD student, she says she recently made a new discovery that may potentially detect early-stage ovarian cancer by means of a blood test.

Five years ago, Auersperg was approached by Woo at a conference in Hong Kong. Intrigued by the professor’s work, Woo asked if she could come to Vancouver and pursue ovarian cancer research under her wing.

Since then, Woo has identified a protein expressed in low grade ovarian cancer that is different from non-cancerous tissue and late, high grade cancers. She explained that because this protein is secreted by the cancer cells, it may show up in blood serum and it might be possible to detect through blood testing.

“The idea is that if we can develop this into a blood test that would be performed on high risk women, we might be able to save more lives,” said Woo. “We’re also beginning to find that this procedure could also be useful in detecting cancer of the uterus.”

The two have since approached UILO, and their technology is now being shown to investors.

For her part, Auersperg hopes companies may have fewer reservations about the new procedure. Despite two previous failed patent applications, she has also previously obtained two commercial agreements with the help of UILO, both in the field of ovarian cancer detection, and feels all her efforts have been worthwhile.

“I’ve been using public funds to support my research for decades and I’d like to feel useful. This isn’t all just for my personal entertainment. I’d like to give back in some way and this is the best way I feel I know how,” she said.

“If nothing else, even if it doesn’t work, it still helps us understand ovarian cancer and may help other researchers figure out how we can go about diagnosing and treating it.”

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2005 UBC Tech Transfer Overview

  • $364 million total estimated UBC research funding
  • 143 technology disclosures
  • 276 patents filed; 136 U.S. patents filed
  • 55 patents issued; 22 U.S. patents issued
  • 2 new spin-off companies (total of 117)

Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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