University of Washington

There is a great need to develop specific and sensitive tools for early detection of ovarian cancer because survival rates for patients are highest when tumors are detected at an early stage (I/II) as compared to low survival rates for patients with advanced stage tumors. In addition, similar tools would be useful for monitoring patients undergoing ovarian cancer treatment in order to detect and treat relapses sooner. One such diagnostic measuring tool, or assay, which has attracted much attention because it is non-invasive, quick, and relatively inexpensive involves measuring protein biomarkers released by tumor cells into blood, urine, and other bodily fluids. For more than 25 years measuring blood serum levels of CA125, a protein biomarker made by most ovarian cancer cells, has been the “gold standard” for detecting ovarian cancer early in women at high risk. However, CA125 is elevated in several non-malignant conditions which can lead to false positive results. For this reason, there is a need for additional biomarkers to help improve the sensitivity and specificity of the CA125 assay for detecting ovarian cancer. Many new recently discovered biomarkers are now being evaluated for their ability to complement the CA125 assay. Dr. Ingegerd Hellstrom in the Department of Pathology at Harborview Medical Center/University of Washington, working with collaborators at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the University of Washington and funded by the Rivkin Center, has developed two new enzyme-based assays (ELISAs) that seem to hold potential for improving detection of ovarian cancer through measuring protein biomarkers in the blood. One assay measures mesothelin, a protein made by malignant cells in ovarian cancer, pancreatic cancer, and mesothelioma. The other measures HE4, a protein made by ovarian cancer cells, which was first shown to be overexpressed in ovarian cancers by Dr. Michel Schummer. A recent study jointly published by several academic institutions reports that HE4 facilitates the detection of ovarian cancer in women with a pelvic mass by complementing the use of CA125. Furthermore, both mesothelin and HE4 can be detected in urine which can simplify frequent screening for women at risk for developing ovarian cancer as well as monitoring of patients in treatment. In addition to these biomarker studies, Dr. Hellstrom and her husband and scientific collaborator Dr. Karl Erik Hellstrom have been deeply involved in developing immunotherapy (treatment designed to induce or enhance the immune system’s capacity to fight disease) since the 1960s when they were among the first to publish on the ability of the immune system in human cancer patients to recognize tumors as “foreign invaders.” With funding from the Rivkin Center, Dr. Ingegerd Hellstrom is currently conducting a pilot study to provoke an immune response to ovarian cancer cells by “silencing” TGF-beta, a gene which can normally suppress the immune system. Dr. Hellstrom and her husband both obtained their MD/PhD degrees at the Karolinska Institute Medical School in Stockholm, Sweden. They were subsequently recruited together as professors to the University of Washington’s School of Medicine in 1966. When Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center opened in 1975, the Hellstroms were among its first faculty members. Eight years later they moved to Oncogen, a biotech company, which was later purchased by Bristol-Myers Squibb, where they were both Vice Presidents for the next 15 years. In 1997 the Hellstroms came back to academia and today are Professors Emeritus at the University of Washington. Dr. Ingegerd Hellstrom has published over 430 peer-reviewed research articles, held over 25 patents, and received several prestigious awards including the American Cancer Society Yearly Award, the Humboldt Prize, and Knight of the Northern Star (the Swedish Order of Merit).

Dr. Ingegerd Hellstrom, MD, PhD