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Researchers at Danbury Hospital are Developing an Early Detection and Screening Tool for Gynecological Cancers

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Dr. Linus Chuang, left, and Dr. John Martignetti lead a Western Connecticut Health Network trial research team dedicated to early detection of endometrial or ovarian cancers.

There is currently no screening tool for early detection of ovarian and endometrial cancers, two deadly cancers in women. But a research team at Danbury Hospital, part of the Western Connecticut Health Network, is developing a new screening tool for early detection of these cancers, a potential game-changer that could save thousands of women’s lives every year.

The statistics are startling: Of the 20,000 women in the U.S. who are diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year, 15,000 will die of the disease. For endometrial cancer, 10,000 to 12,000 of the approximately 60,000 women diagnosed each year die and these numbers are rising.

Physician scientist Dr. John Martignetti and gynecologic oncologist Dr. Linus Chuang are leading the promising “bedside to bench” program pairing surgery and other clinical care with in-depth research.

“What we now offer all our network health patients is the opportunity to participate in this unique program, getting hospital-based clinical care coupled to cutting-edge, personalized medicine research in the laboratory,” Martignetti says.

The project starts by collecting samples and other data from enrolled patients at the time of their surgery and throughout their care. “Those samples enter the research infrastructure and are genetically dissected and analyzed so we can more precisely begin to understand why that cancer arose, how it’s progressing, what it might do in the future, how it might behave in response to different therapies and can we define personalized biomarkers to better track its behavior,” Martignetti says. “That’s really a unique opportunity in the sense that the research is not targeted for just selected patients, but every patient in our health care network.”

The hope is that with this clinical-research approach and by studying these cancers on such a large-scale, ongoing basis, advances can also be made in early-detection strategies, the holy grail of cancer research.

Rather than a blood-based or radiology-based test, the clinical-research team at WCHN has devised a uterine lavage, which Martignetti describes as “a saltwater-based wash of the uterine cavity that allows us to collect molecular fingerprints of cancer initiation.”

Team members say that anecdotal results based on studies of nearly 1,000 women are already promising. One patient who voluntarily took part in the project did not show any advanced signs or symptoms of endometrial cancer, but the molecular lavage analysis revealed suggestions of extremely early cancer growth. One year later, a microscopic-size cancer was diagnosed.

“The potential is there that hopefully we can detect these cancers in their earliest asymptomatic stages and not wait for them to grow and spread before symptoms begin,” Martignetti says.

The two doctors leading the trial research at Danbury Hospital had previously collaborated at Mount Sinai Medical Center. Chuang says he welcomes the opportunity to continue working with Martignetti in hopes of developing an effective screening tool for gynecological cancers. He says other key factors including philanthropic support, world-class research, respected clinical care and enough patients willing to take part in the research “give me great hope that we can succeed in this work.”

One patient, Cathy Beauregard of Bethel, says she is hopeful that the research will lead to improved detection capabilities and treatment. “Being diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer was certainly a shock and not something I had ever expected to hear,” Beauregard says. “However … it gives me hope to know that by participating in this important research, I am helping others diagnosed or at risk for endometrial or ovarian cancers.”

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This article appeared in the June 2019 issue of Connecticut Magazine. You can subscribe here, or find the current issue on sale hereSign up for our newsletter here to get the latest and greatest content from Connecticut Magazine delivered right to your inbox. Got a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com, or contact us on Facebook @connecticutmagazine or Twitter @connecticutmag.