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JoAnne S. Richards, Ph.D., Professor, Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology

Currently there are no effective screening options for ovarian cancer. Advocating early detection, educating the community on signs and symptoms and increasing research funding are pivotal to helping women and their families fight ovarian cancer.

This month, one of the Center for Reproductive Medicine’s leading researchers in ovarian cancer, JoAnne Richards, Ph.D., professor, Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology highlights her lab’s research initiatives and the translation of their research into better ovarian cancer detection and screening strategies for women.

Q: Can you tell me about the research your lab has or is currently working on and how has your perspective on ovarian cancer changed as your research expertise and familiarity with the field increased?

Our laboratory has been studying mouse models of ovarian cancer in which ovarian epithelial cell tumors develop at an early age and with 100 percent penetrance. Using these mice, we have documented that the levels of and activity of wild type 53, the absence of p53 (p53 null) and the presence of specific gain-of-function p53 mutants, such as R172H, determine tumor morphology, behavior, responses to steroid hormones and metastasis to the peritoneal cavity, most specifically to the omentum. 

Interrogation of The Cancer Genome Atlas has revealed further that there are sub-classes of ovarian cancer, including an "immune reactive" subtype, and that specific p53 mutants, that are highly expressed in human ovarian cancer tissues, are related to distinct signaling and regulatory pathways, including inflammatory/immune signaling.

These observations clearly reinforce that ovarian cancer has many, not just one phenotype. Perhaps, what has amazed me most is the diversity of ovarian cancer in relation to p53 mutant status and that we should be trying to define how specific p53 mutants relate to subtypes and how to target these.

Q: What are some of your lab’s goals in translating that research into better detection, screening and treatment strategies for women?

We believe that knowing the status of p53, as wild type, null, mutant or heterozygous, and steroid hormone receptor expression will provide guidelines for determining the sensitivity of tumors to steroid hormones, chemotherapy and specific drugs, including those that can disrupt of mutant p53 expression for tumors addicted to the mutant 53, inhibit steroid receptors or impact the immune system.

Q: What do you think we can do as a community to help increase awareness and educate others?

It would seem that we need to have clinicians and basic scientists, even patient survivors, discuss ovarian cancer and what approaches seem most likely to succeed in the future. Perhaps a forum at Baylor College of Medicine would highlight these needs.

Stay tuned for any upcoming Center for Reproductive Medicine events, forums or talks highlighting ovarian cancer awareness and research.