Scientists at Lawson Health Research Institute have uncovered a molecule that could be used to improve diagnosis and treatment of ovarian cancer.

Until now, it was thought cells related to ovarian cancer behaved in a certain way.

"Previous studies stated that LKB1 (a molecule that regulates cell metabolism) was a tumour suppressor in ovarian cancer, meaning that tumour cells need to get rid of LKB1 to cause cancer," says Dr. Trevor Shepherd.

“But our work is in direct conflict with these studies, because we definitively show that ovarian cancer cells still have LKB1 and that this molecule allows ovarian cancer spheroids to change their metabolism, promote tumour cell survival and make them more resistant to chemotherapy.

“It really opens a new window of opportunity because here's a molecule that we had disregarded, but we realize now this is a molecule that might be a potential therapeutic target for women with late-stage ovarian cancer."

To prove the theory, Shepherd and his team grew cancer cells in 3-D structures called spheroids, similar to the way cancer cells grow in patients. These spheroids can attach themselves to different organs and remain dormant.

“For us, it's groundbreaking in terms of targeting LKB1 in ovarian cancer. Nobody else is looking at this, and we can be at the forefront LKB1 targeted research in ovarian cancer."

Ovarian cancer can be difficult to treat with chemotherapy or surgery. That's because it’s often spread by the time of diagnosis.  It is estimated that this year, 2,800 Canadian women will be newly diagnosed with this disease.

“Targeting LKB1 will not be a magic bullet, but it will be another piece to that puzzle and with the research we're going to be doing over the next two or three years, we will be able to see whether or not, this in combination with standard chemo, or in combination with other therapeutics, it may be a worthwhile target to go after," Shepherd says.