By Eric Swedlund –
Taking on Ovarian Cancer with Teamwork
As a renowned biomedical engineer and research administrator, Jennifer Barton knows that scientific breakthroughs come from bringing the right team together.
In her own laboratory and as interim director of the University of Arizona’s BIO5 Institute, Barton exemplifies the principle that the best outcomes come from aligning the strengths of many.
Barton’s approach earned her team a four-year, $1.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health that will allow her to build on her work over the last decade developing a life-saving approach to early detection of ovarian cancer.
“Effective screening for early detection is a compelling problem and a fantastic technical challenge because there’s no perfect solution today,” Barton said. “This is a new way of thinking about accessing the ovary in a minimally invasive way.”
The work is especially challenging because although ovarian cancer is not a very common cancer, it is the fifth-leading cancer killer among women, largely because most cases aren’t detected until the disease is widespread. Early detection, when the cancer is still confined to the ovary, occurs in just 15 percent of cases, but dramatically improves the prognosis. The overall five-year survival rate for ovarian cancer patients is only 46 percent, but the survival rate jumps to more than 90 percent in those early detection cases.
“We have a dual-faceted problem,” Barton said. “We haven’t had the technology or the scientific understanding of how ovarian cancer develops.”
With the new grant, Barton and her research collaborators, Khanh Kieu, assistant professor of optical sciences, and Dr. Kenneth Hatch, professor of obstetrics and gynecology, will move forward in developing and improving the device, a millimeter-scale endoscope called a salpingoscope. Used under local anesthesia in an office setting, the salpingoscope would enable high-sensitivity, high-resolution imaging of the fallopian tube, ovaries and uterine wall.
Concurrent to advancing the basic biology research on ovarian cancer development and improving the device’s imaging capabilities is a search for an outside commercial partner to provide engineering and manufacturing, Barton said.
“Universities are great at building prototypes, but we don’t do manufacturing,” Barton said. “We have a patent and are actively seeking a licensee.”
If it becomes the first acceptable screening method for ovarian cancer, the salpingoscope would be a breakthrough for those at high risk of developing ovarian cancer. Currently, women over 35 who are in the high-risk pool, as determined by their family medical history, have a single effective prevention measure: the removal of their ovaries and fallopian tubes.
About 50 percent of women in the high-risk pool develop ovarian cancer, and ovary removal surgery has its own health risks and consequences. Early tests that don’t detect the onset of ovarian cancer can render the surgery unnecessary.
“We know now this would be really great for women who are at high risk of developing ovarian cancer,” Barton said. “If we show we’re successful, we can expand that out to those with an elevated risk.”
Scientists have an incomplete picture of just how aggressive ovarian cancer can be, and as other research into genetics and biomarkers related to cancer improves, the detection itself can become easier.
The current consensus, Barton said, is that ovarian cancer starts in the fallopian tubes as pre-cancerous lesions. Eventually, the salpingoscope could be incorporated into an annual screening protocol and Barton’s goal is to incorporate biopsy capabilities into the device itself.
Barton’s research is exemplary of how BIO5 was designed to facilitate cross-disciplinary collaborations and combine different areas of expertise in innovative ways.
“I’ve had people here at BIO5 help me meet collaborators and that’s been crucial,” Barton said. “One of the best things is having this building right in between the health science campus and the main campus. Everybody on campus can feel like they own this building.
“I have in my lab engineering students, physiology students, optical science students and medical residents and they all feel 100-percent confident. We try very hard to create that culture here.”
Started in 2001, the BIO5 Institute has brought together top researchers in agriculture, engineering, medicine, pharmacy and basic science under a collaborative umbrella, encouraging creative solutions with small seed grants. Strategically aligning areas of specific strengths across campus has directly led to biomedical engineering breakthroughs like Barton’s.
“These are areas we’re great at on campus and what BIO5 can do is facilitate those ties,” she said. “We work with our strengths here at the UA and help connect them in new ways. That’s where the exciting developments are happening. BIO5 and Tech Launch Arizona have enabled me to do this in a way that doesn’t happen at other universities.”
Barton’s interest in science was sparked during America’s Bicentennial celebrations, watching on television as laser beams bounced off the Washington Monument.
“I was fascinated,” Barton said. “And when I discovered that lasers could be used for medical purposes, that’s when I knew what I wanted to do with my life.”
Rather than medicine, Barton settled on engineering for her path, first with electrical engineering, then shifting to biomedical engineering as it emerged as its own field. And that childhood fascination came full circle when Barton began her dissertation research, working on using lasers to treat people.