Ovarian cancer is one of the diseases that is difficult to detect in the early stages because symptoms are not easy to detect, according to experts.
Most of the time, the disease is diagnosed when it has already spread to other tissues, making treatment quite difficult.
The treatments that a patient with advanced stage ovarian cancer can be given are chemotherapy and surgery, which involves the removal of one or both ovaries and at times the fallopian tubes and uterus are removed, says Aggrey Akula, a Western Kenya-based gynaecologist.
“Ovarian cancer is a silent one. The cases are diagnosed in the advanced stages since the symptoms are not easily seen,” he says.
However, London-based researchers have come up with a new drug that is being touted as highly effective in treating women with ovarian cancer in advanced stages.
Dr Akula says, if the drug is proven, it would save many Kenyan women from the disease.
“The drug could be a saviour to many women since the number of aged women being diagnosed with the disease is high,” he said.
According to the results presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) meeting in Chicago recently, the clinical trials proved that the drug — technically known as ONX-0801 — was effective.
The drug can as well be used in the early stages of the disease to increase the survival rate of the patients.
Dr Akula says since the government initiated the national cancer screening programme in public hospitals in March, more cases of cancer were being diagnosed.
“This year alone, I have diagnosed more than 20 women with cancer, cervical leading followed by ovarian cancer in aged women.
The number is increasingly rising. The invention of the drug was more than anything that has been achieved in the last 10 years,” he says.
The drug shrank tumours in more than half among the patients who participated in a small trial in London.
As a result, researcher’s confirmed that the drug was effective and they could move the clinical trials to the next higher level.
The study leader, Dr Udai Banerji, says they wanted to find out whether the drug was safe, so they tested it on a small number of patients.
In the first phase of clinical trial, the drug was administered to 15 women with advanced ovarian cancer as part of a wider trial run by the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) and the Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust in London.
“With the phase 1 trials, the results were good and we hoping to move the drug higher to the next phase to confirm its safety,” he said.
The drug, significantly shrunk tumours in seven of the patients who carried the specific molecule that the drug was designed to target.
“The beauty of this particular drug is that it is targeted to the cancer cell. This means there are fewer side-effects, making it a gentler treatment for ovarian cancer patients.
Most of the cancer treatments have strong side effects to patients,” said Dr Banerji.
Western Kenya-based oncologist Julius Onyango said with the drug would be a relief to cancer patients since most of the treatment they get have harmful side effects, some permanent.
“Chemotherapy which is the common treatment to cancer patients damages the blood-producing cells of the bone marrow and because of this, patients have low blood cell count, which increases chances of infection and fatigue all the time,” he said.
Dr Onyango says most of the side effects including loss of hair, mouth sores, hand and foot rashes tend to disappear once treatment is stopped but some chemotherapy drugs may have permanent side-effects leading to kidney damage.
“I hope that once all the trials are done, patients across the world would be able to access the drug,” says the oncologist.
Dr Onyango expressed optimism following the development of the drug.
“It’s encouraging to see this new drug is showing promise as a potential new treatment for ovarian cancer,” Catherine Pickworth, from Cancer Research UK.
“There are some women who do not respond to the current ovarian cancer treatment in the market, the drug will help them since it has no side effects. We will work and find out the women that the drug can help,” he said.
Once locked onto a cancer cell, the drug disrupts its chemistry by blocking the action of a key molecule, causing widespread DNA damage and cell death.
However, ovarian cancer is a difficult disease to treat, and the prognosis in the advanced stages is very poor.
Ovarian cancer is the third common cause of cancer-related deaths from gynaecologic tumours in Kenya.
The disease causes minimal symptoms in its early stages, therefore, most patients are diagnosed when the disease is at an advanced stage.
Ovarian cancer often called the “silent killer,” is poorly understood by researchers.
Ovarian cancer kills about 14,000 women each year in the United States, where some 21,000 women are diagnosed annually.
The Kenya National Cancer Control Strategy (2011-2016) report states that “cancer ranks third as a cause of death after infectious and cardiovascular diseases.
It accounts for seven per cent of the total national mortality every year”.
Data from independent sources indicate that 39,000 new cases of cancer are reported annually while the disease claims 27,000 lives in Kenya annually.
The researchers, who hope to carry out bigger clinical trials as soon as possible, have also developed a test that can detect which women are most likely to benefit from the treatment.
However, Prof Michel Coleman of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine urged caution.
“Shrinkage of tumours is important, but as the authors point out, that is not the same as producing the hoped-for extension of survival for women with ovarian cancer,” he said.
“The excitement of the investigators is completely understandable, but one should be cautious about interpreting this result as a breakthrough for ovarian cancer patients until data on longer-term outcomes are available.”