Hens’ Histories Hint at Ovarian Cancer Biomarker

Rather than ponder the ages-old question of the chicken and the egg, a group of NC State researchers is using egg-laying chickens and systems biology to answer a more pressing issue: What comes first, ovarian cancer or detectable physiological changes related to the cancer?

“If we can find a true biomarker, we will be able to save countless lives.”

Ovarian cancer is particularly deadly, with less than half of the women contracting it surviving five years. “It’s such a horrible disease, and it’s usually diagnosed too late,” says Dr. Jon Horowitz, associate professor of molecular biomedical sciences in the College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM). The belated diagnosis means scientists don’t know if there are any telltale signs, or biomarkers, in a woman’s physiology that could serve as an early warning, similar to the increase in prostate-specific antigen (PSA) in men that signals the potential for prostate cancer.

Researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota began collecting blood samples from every female patient several years ago and have, over time, amassed more than 100 samples from women with early-stage ovarian cancer. But the samples provide only a single snapshot for each woman, says Dr. Dave Muddiman, who formerly worked at the Mayo Clinic and now heads up the W.M. Keck FT-ICR Mass Spectrometry Laboratory in the College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences at NC State. That makes it difficult to identify any potential biomarkers.

Through the CVM’s Center for Comparative Medicine and Translational Research, which links human and animal research efforts across NC State, Muddiman joined forces with Horowitz and poultry science professors Jim Petitte, Paul Mozdziak, and Ken Anderson. Because 10 to 25 percent of hens develop ovarian cancer after about two years of steady egg production, the poultry science group has collected blood samples and other data on about 250 hens before and after their cancers. That data can be beneficial to studying human cancer, Petitte says, because of similarities between chicken and human cells. “We have what amounts to a medical history on these hens,” Muddiman says, “We can see how their systems changed over time.”

Muddiman’s research team is running extensive tests on the hen blood samples to catalog molecular changes. Once they find some potential targets, Horowitz will conduct a more in-depth protein and genetic analysis. He will also compare the findings with the human samples at the Mayo Clinic to see if a common biomarker can be found. “We have to figure out which molecular changes are real and which are red herrings,” he says. “If we can find a true biomarker, we will be able to save countless lives.”

 

Blood work collected by Dr. Jim Petitte from scores
of hens gives scientists a look at physiological changes as they develop ovarian cancer.

Blood work collected by Dr. Jim Petitte from scores of hens gives scientists a look at physiological changes as they develop ovarian cancer.

Drs. Dave Muddiman (left) and Jon Horowitz will conduct an in-depth analysis of the hen blood samples for clues that could lead to a diagnostic test for ovarian cancer.

Drs. Dave Muddiman (left) and Jon Horowitz will conduct an in-depth analysis of the hen blood samples for clues that could lead to a diagnostic test for ovarian cancer.