Science Grants  :  2011 Sean Patrick Recipients

2011 Recipients of the Sean Patrick Multidisciplinary Collaborative Grant

Drs. Monique Spillman, MD, PhD, and Lynne T. Bemis, PhD, are the first recipients of the Sean Patrick Multidisciplinary Collaborative Grant.  Following is an update on their exciting research, as well as the Q & A explaining their original project.

Research Update, November 1, 2012:

The HERA grant supported the work of Dr. Bemis and Dr. Spillman on developing a urine test for ovarian cancer. In the past year, the doctors have shown that human urine does contain small signaling RNA molecules, called microRNAs. These microRNAs are present even when the cells in the urine are removed. Importantly, urine from women without cancer has a low level of microRNA while urine from women with ovarian cancer has a lot of microRNA. The library of microRNAs in urine from women with ovarian cancer is also quite different than that of normal women. One microRNA represents almost 50% of the total microRNA in urine from ovarian cancer patients. This microRNA has been called OV1 by the Spillman/Bemis team.  Preliminary studies on urine from women with stages 1 through 4 ovarian cancer seems to suggest that OV1 increases as the stage of cancer increases. This is an exciting finding; however, they are also looking for another microRNA that will be higher in early stage disease than in late stage disease.

Photo of Monique Spillman

Monique Spillman is an assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Section of Gynecologic Oncology, at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.  She is a gynecologic oncologist who treats women with ovarian cancer, both surgically and with chemotherapy.  Lynne Bemis is an associate professor in the Division of Medical Oncology also at the UCSOM.  Her research interest is in circulating microRNAs and their role in the cancer microenvironment.  Together, these two scientists want to create a new technology to develop an urgently needed sensitive biomarker for the detection of ovarian cancer.

 Q:  What is the primary goal of your HERA-funded study, “Novel Methods for the Detection of microRNAs in Accessible Fluids from Ovarian Cancer Patients”? 

A:  The primary goal is to develop a test for ovarian cancer based upon a urine sample, rather than a blood sample.  Our vision for this test is that it would be a point-of-care assay allowing the clinician to detect recurrence during office visits.  A larger goal is to find a test that will detect early ovarian cancer in women without symptoms.

Photo of Lynne BemisQ:   What are microRNAs?  How long does it take to identify them? Do you think detection of microRNAs will be more reliable than the CA125 test? Why?
A:   microRNAs are small noncoding RNA molecules that block expression from specific messenger RNA targets.  We believe that an assay will be developed that could detect them in as little as thirty minutes.  Currently our methods take at least three hours but with additional research we expect that the time from obtaining a urine sample to obtaining the test results may be reduced. CA125 is a nonspecific protein marker in the blood that can be increased by the stomach flu, endometriosis, pregnancy, pneumonia, fibroids, or even normal menstrual periods.  Eventually we think our test will be more reliable because there are multiple microRNAs that may inform about ovarian cancer and these could be made into a panel thus giving more points of information per patient sample as compared to CA125 that measures just one protein.

 Q:  If there are unique microRNAs in ovarian cancer patients, how long will it take for the technology to be available for use by the general public for early detection?

A:  There are several technologies in development currently and we expect that once a microRNA or group of microRNAs is determined to be informative for ovarian cancer it will be rapidly (within months to a couple of years) developed into a sensitive assay that could be potentially used in human trials.   We expect to test available techniques that are in development and come up with the most sensitive assay regardless of the technology so that it will be available to patients in a more timely manner.

Q:  What are the biggest challenges – or obstacles – in this proposed work?

A, MS:  The biggest challenge will be the robust verification of our findings in another group of urine samples from a different institution. This step has been skipped by other groups, and their tests have failed when used to screen the general population of women.

A, LB:  I agree with Monique on this.  Something that works in one lab may not work in another and this will be a consideration for us throughout the project.

Q: Have you collaborated together before?  What made you want to work together on this project?  Explain why forming this team will be key to your success.

A:  Dr. Bemis has been a valuable advisor to my laboratory on microRNAs. This project was envisioned by the gynecologic oncology fellow, Dr. Charles Anderson, who sought out Dr. Bemis’s expertise in urinary microRNAs. I am very excited to carry on this work, and Dr. Bemis is the perfect partner to make this project shine.

Q:  Do you think we are close to a cure for ovarian cancer?

A:  Unfortunately, most ovarian cancer is still diagnosed at an advanced stage, when it is no longer curable. The holy grail of ovarian cancer research is to find an accurate early diagnostic test that can see ovarian cancer when it is confined to the ovaries. This research project is one step towards that goal.

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