The majority of women who undergo surgery for suspected ovarian cancer do not actually have the disease, but these unnecessary surgeries could soon be reduced thanks to a novel blood test developed by a Swedish research team.

Researchers at Uppsala University and the University of Gothenburg’s Sahlgrenska Academy have developed a biomarker test based on the analysis of 11 proteins in the blood, taken from plasma samples of women with both benign tumours and malignant ovarian cancer. The results of the study have been published in Communications Biology.

The blood test is designed to be used in cases where an ultrasound has already detected abnormalities, to identify whether or not the patient in question has ovarian cancer.

Routine use of this test is predicted to reduce the cancer rate in ovarian surgery from one in five to one in three. This could greatly reduce the number of unnecessary surgeries carried out and provide peace of mind to patients.

Ovarian cancer is typically discovered at a late stage and has a high mortality rate, with only 30-40% of patients surviving five years after diagnosis. However, patients have a 90% chance of survival if the disease is caught early.

As yet, there has been no routine test specific enough to allow for adequate screening. Patients with suspected ovarian cancer will instead undergo an ultrasound, and if abnormalities are detected surgery is the only way to ensure all potential malignancy is found and removed. This means many undergo surgery despite having non-cancerous complications that could have been treated through non-invasive means.

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University of Gothernburg professor Karin Sundfeldt said: “We need to develop more accurate pre-surgery diagnostics. To detect one cancer, we operate on up to five women – yet this is currently the best option when abnormalities are detected by ultrasound and cancer is suspected. There is a great need for a simple blood test that could identify women who do not need surgery.”

The assay is also able to detect borderline cases and early stages of the disease.

Further testing is now needed to confirm the initial findings of the study, with any final product years down the line. The development has been welcomed by cancer charities.

Ovarian Cancer Action chief executive Cary Wakefield said: “This early stage research is exciting as we know early detection of ovarian cancer is vital in giving women the best chance of survival but, unlike so many other cancers, there is currently no screening tool available worldwide.”