For many women, a diagnosis of ovarian cancer is a death sentence. More than 14,000 women die of it each year. With symptoms that mimic other ailments, it often is diagnosed at a late stage. The five-year survival rate is just 31 percent; when the cancer becomes resistant to traditional chemotherapy, newer drugs have held it at bay for a few months at best.

University of California researchers have been instrumental in recent advances in ovarian cancer treatment and analysis, expanding understanding of the disease and hope for more successful treatments.

Most recently, researchers from UC Santa Cruz and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have helped develop the first comprehensive catalog of aberrant genes in an aggressive type of ovarian cancer responsible for 70 percent of all ovarian cancer deaths.

The work, reported June 30 in the journal Nature, involved hundreds of researchers from more than 80 institutions in the most expansive genomic analysis of any cancer to date. The project was conducted under the auspices of the Cancer Genome Atlas, a joint project of the National Cancer Institute and the National Human Genome Research Institute that is devoted to understanding the molecular basis of cancer.

Learning how genes mutate in their march toward malignancy is a major step toward the personalized treatment of ovarian cancer, where doctors can target specific genes in a patient with the most effective treatment.

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A team of researchers, led by scientists at UC San Francisco, also revealed last month a way to uncover the evolution of human cancer cells - in this case, ovarian as well as a common skin cancer. Their determination of mutation order may give doctors a new way to design diagnostics for early detection.

UCSF also is participating in a phase III study of "dose-dense" chemotherapy, which has shown promise in battling ovarian cancers that have become resistant to standard treatment. The dose-dense strategy involves lower doses of chemotherapy given weekly, instead of the standard higher dose every three weeks. This deprives cancer cells of the opportunity to recover between treatments.

Another drug treatment for ovarian cancer has been studied recently at UCLA's Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center. This treatment also picks up where conventional treatment leaves off, inhibiting cell growth, resensitizing cells to traditional therapy and enhancing platinum chemotherapy's effect on cells still responding to it.