UCL News


Collaboration points way towards improved treatment for women's cancers

22 February 2013

UCL researchers have recently commenced an academic-industrial collaboration - EpiFemCare - to develop new methods for screening, diagnosing and personalising treatment of breast and ovarian cancers.

Prof Martin Widschwendter

The EpiFemCare project will develop blood tests that will enable new and improved means of cancer detection, as well as the evaluation of response to cancer treatment.

This innovative, collaborative research project is led by Professor Martin Widschwendter from the Department of Women's Cancer at the UCL EGA Institute for Women's Health. Collaborators include Charles University (Prague, Czech Republic), Ludwig Maximilians University (Munich, Germany), and companies with expertise in epigenetics and next generation screening (GATC Biotech, Germany) and managing the large volumes of data created by these experiments (Genedata, Switzerland).

Project Coordinator, Professor Widschwendter, said: "Currently many women face an advanced ovarian cancer diagnosis or breast cancer over-diagnosis due to lack of suitable tests of early detection or over-zealous screening procedures. EpiFemCare scientists and clinicians are aspiring to change this through the development of blood based tests with increased sensitivity for ovarian cancers and increased specificity for breast cancers. The tests would also allow us to predict patient response to treatment, thereby personalising their treatment regimens".

The research has been made possible thanks to a €5.8 million award from the European Commission. The project involves 6 partners in five European countries and will run for three and a half years. It will use state-of-the-art technologies in epigenetics, next generation sequencing and data management to identify tumour markers present in blood and link these markers to the presence of cancer.

Breast and ovarian cancers pose huge and unsolved challenges to the medical profession. Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in the EU: more than 332,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year and a woman dies every six minutes from this disease.

Ovarian cancer, whilst far less common than breast cancer, is often diagnosed when at an advanced stage and has spread to other areas of the body. More than 60 per cent of ovarian cancer patients die within the first five years after diagnosis.

Implementation of successful screening programs has dramatically reduced the number of women dying from cervical cancer. Similarly, the EpiFemCare project aims to halve the number of women who receive a diagnosis of breast or ovarian cancer when that cancer is already advanced, halve the number of women who receive unnecessary long-term chemotherapy, and reduce the number of women dying from these female cancers by 20 per cent.

The EpiFemCare project is partially funded by the European Union Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Innovation (FP7) (Project number: 305428).

Image caption: Professor Martin Widschwendter and the project team outside the UCL Cancer Institute