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Evidence Points to Fallopian-Tube Origins of Ovarian Cancers

April 17, 2015

Ovary-sparing surgical approach could prevent surgical menopause in women at high risk for ovarian cancer.

PHILADELPHIA (April 17, 2015)— A new surgical approach that removes the fallopian tubes while sparing the ovaries may provide premenopausal women at high risk for ovarian cancer, particularly those with BRCA1/2 mutations, with a cancer risk–minimizing surgical option that also reduces some negative effects of ovary removal at a young age, according to a review published in the May issue of Cancer Prevention Research, a journal of the American Association for Cancer Research.

Recent clinical evidence suggests that premalignant cells associated with ovarian cancer may, in fact, arise in the fallopian tubes and not the ovaries. Therefore, it may be possible to reduce ovarian cancer risk and mortality among women at high risk through the removal of just the fallopian tubes.

“Angelina Jolie’s recent announcement about undergoing preventive removal of her ovaries and fallopian tubes has really put this issue into the national media and has made it easier to talk about this once taboo topic,” said lead study author Mary B. Daly, MD, of the department of clinical genetics at Fox Chase Cancer Center. “With this discovery, we have made a real breakthrough in the understanding of ovarian cancer risk, but it is still too early for this surgical option to become standard practice.”

Ovarian cancer is relatively rare in the United States. However, when diagnosed in late stages, it has a five-year survival of only 43.8%, and early screening methods are limited. Among women with familial risk for ovarian cancer due to mutations in the BRCA1/2 genes, prophylactic removal of the ovaries and fallopian tubes—a bilateral salpingo-ooporectomy—has become the standard of care for risk reduction.

“For years, it was common thinking that ovarian cancer arose out of the single layer of cells that surrounds the outside of the ovary—the ovarian surface epithelium,” Dr. Daly said. “The problem with this theory was that researchers could never find premalignant lesions in these cells the way they could with most other solid tumors.”

In their review, Dr. Daly and colleagues discussed the discovery that 10% to 15% of the fallopian tubes in women with BRCA1/2 mutations who underwent preventive bilateral salpingo-ooporectomy had premalignant or invasive cancer cells. Subsequent studies showed that as much as 60% of women with sporadic ovarian cancer also had premalignant cells in their fallopian tubes.

“Removal of the ovaries and fallopian tubes in women any time before menopause puts women into immediate surgical menopause and results in short-term side effects including night sweats, hot flashes, and mood swings, and long-term side effects including an increased risk for heart and bone disease,” Dr. Daly said. “By undergoing fallopian tube removal alone, women would still have functioning ovaries and may not lose the protection that female hormones provide the heart and bones, but they may risk the possibility that ovarian cancer could still arise out of the ovaries.”

Dr. Daly and colleagues also discussed this approach in the approximately 600,000 women at average risk for ovarian cancer who undergo hysterectomies each year in the United States. Although these women are undergoing a procedure for a benign gynecologic condition, preventive removal of the fallopian tubes may be another compelling opportunity for ovarian cancer prevention.

“We suggest the initiation of a national cohort study where women would not be randomized to one procedure or another, but instead would be entered into a national registry so that over time we could answer some of the questions about this procedure,” Dr. Daly said.

Fox Chase Cancer Center, part of the Temple University Health System, is one of the leading cancer research and treatment centers in the United States. Founded in 1904 in Philadelphia as one of the nation’s first cancer hospitals, Fox Chase was also among the first institutions to be designated a National Cancer Institute Comprehensive Cancer Center in 1974. Fox Chase researchers have won the highest awards in their fields, including two Nobel Prizes. Fox Chase physicians are also routinely recognized in national rankings, and the Center’s nursing program has received the Magnet recognition for excellence four consecutive times. Today, Fox Chase conducts a broad array of nationally competitive basic, translational, and clinical research, with special programs in cancer prevention, detection, survivorship, and community outreach.  For more information, call 1-888-FOX CHASE or (1-888-369-2427).