Meet our researchers: searching for traces leading to ovarian cancer
When Ingrid Hedenfalk, many years ago, studied to become a biologist, she chose to write her degree project on ovarian cancer. She went on to doctoral studies focusing on breast cancer at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), in the USA. She has now worked as a researcher for more than a quarter of a century and specialises in finding traces in endometriosis tissue that increase the risk of certain kinds of ovarian cancer later on in life.
“My time in the USA piqued my interest in medical research and for a few years now I have again dedicated most of mytime to ovarian cancer. So, you could say that I have come full circle.”
Ovarian cancer is not a common form of cancer. In Sweden, approximately 600 women are diagnosed each year, in comparison with 8000 who are diagnosed with breast cancer. Most of the women who become ill are between 40 and 70 years old. This form of cancer is usually divided into four groups, of which most suffer from the most serious: high-grade serous ovarian cancer.
Endometriosis could be a clue leading to new knowledge
Initially, the symptoms are often vague and thus the diagnoses are made late, which increases the risk of a serious prognosis. However, if the disease couldbe detected early, the prognosis in most cases would be good.
“In many cases, those affected only feel diffuse pain and a bloated stomach for a period of time”, says Ingrid Hedenfalk, who is currently an associate professor and,in addition to her work as a researcher, is also employed as a professor at the Department of Clinical Sciencesin Lund.
“That is why it would be good if we knew early on which women are at higher risk of sufferingfrom ovarian cancer later in life and therefore who we should keep a closer eye on.”
In an ongoing research study, Hedenfalk and her colleagues, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Gothenburg, are therefore studying women who have previously suffered from endometriosis, a factor that seems to lead to an increased risk of a certain type of ovarian cancer, namely clear cell and endometrioid carcinoma.
"With my background as a biologist I also want to gain an increased biological understanding of the mechanisms of the disease."
Researchers in the study have searched through medical history archives to find women who have been operated on, first for endometriosis and later in life for ovarian cancer. In addition, they have retrieved tissue samples from the women, taken both at the time of the endometriosis operation and later from the tumour. Since not many women with endometriosis require an operation and it can take a long time between the diagnoses, the material is limited.
There is a potential to save women’s lives
“We have succeeded in collectingaround twenty tissue samples that we are comparing and analysing. What we have found so far is that there may be a connection between the molecular changes in endometriosis and thechanges seen in ovarian cancer developed laterin life. However, we have a lot left to analyse in the study and, in the future, we will also study more data from women who have had endometriosis but who have not developed ovarian cancer later in life and compare these to the tissue samples we are studying now. With my background as a biologist, I also want to gain an increased biological understanding for the mechanisms of the disease”, says Ingrid Hedenfalk.
“If the studies are successful, they may contribute to the earlier identification of women at risk of suffering from endometriosis-related ovarian cancer in the future. It could save many lives.”
Text and photo: Olle Dahlbäck
Endometriosis refers to tissue that is similar to the endometrium growing outside of the uterus. Approximately one in every ten people who menstruate have the disease. A common symptom is pain in connection with menstruation. It is common for the person affected to require treatment to manage or eliminate the pain. Source: 1177 Vårdguiden
Name: Ingrid Hedenfalk
Occupation: researcher and professor
Research environment: Ingrid Hedenfalkis responsible for the “Breast and Ovarian Cancer” research team and belongs to research environments within the area of oncology at Medicon Village in Lund and Lund University Cancer Centre (LUCC). She has collaborations with other researchers at Lund University and Skåne University Hospital, including at the Women’s Clinic (Päivi Kannisto), at the Skåne Oncology Clinic (Susanne Malander and Jenny Jönsson) and within pathology (Anna Måsbäck).
Family: husband, teenage son and dog
Lives: Östra Torn in Lund
In her spare time: Spends time with family, gardening, knitting and with her Spanish waterdog Nemo.