An ovarian cancer screening test being developed in Detroit
promises new hope for Jewish women and general population.
Special to the Jewish News
"The artificial intelligence program identified a
pattern consisting of several proteins among thou-
sands that distinguishes between women with ovari-
an cancer and those that are healthy or have non-
cancerous conditions. The idea that we use a pattern
of proteins for important diagnostic information
rather than a single biomarker is very exciting.
"We first used serum samples from known cancer
patients and unaffected individuals to establish pro-
tein patterns which were present at different levels in
the two groups," says Dr. Tainsky. "Once these pat-
terns were identified, we compared them with the
patterns of the same proteins in serum samples from
other patients with and without cancer.
"An important finding was the ability to correctly
identify, in a small sample of patients, all State I
ovarian cancer cases. We have enlisted the member-
ship of the Sinai Guild to help us collect more blood
serum samples so that we can validate the promise
of these results."
"We sent about 7,000 letters to women asking
them to volunteer for the project with some qualifi-
cations, such as not having cancer," explains Sandra
Jaffa; executive director of the Guild. "Our goal was
to find 500 healthy women and, to date, we are at
the 400 number. The Guild has always been inter-
ested in genetics and this is a project in which we
"The project still needs 100 more volunteers to fill
out a questionnaire and to donate a single tube of
The Gail Purtan Ovarian Cancer Research Fund
has been a major player in helping to support the
research project. According to Dr. Tainsky, much of
the work would never have gotten off the ground
without the fund's support.
"My wife has been battling ovarian cancer for over
six years," says Dick Purtan, morning host of Dick
Purtan's People on radio station WOMC-104.3 FM.
"My lecture fees and listener donations help make
up the fund. It's one way to give back to the com-
munity and have a meaningful impact."
new screening test for early detection of
ovarian cancer is being refined and
expanded at the Detroit-based Karmanos
Cancer Institute in preparation for gov-
ernment approval. Michael A. Tainsky, Ph.D., pro-
fessor and director of molecular biology and genetics
at Wayne State University School of Medicine,
developed the project.
The research concept is novel. It doesn't follow the
traditional template of screening for single markers.
In Dr. Tainsky's screening, there are multiple mark-
ers reflecting the varying behaviors of proteins in a
Secondly, the test would have been impossible to
create without enlisting cutting-edge technology in
robotics and artificial intelligence.
The need for the new test is compelling. More
than 80 percent of ovarian cancer patients are diag-
nosed at a late clinical stage and have a 20 percent
or less chance of surviving at five years. In contrast,
the 20 percent of women diagnosed with early-stage
disease have a 95 percent prognosis at five years.
Ovarian cancer is the sixth most-common cancer
in women. It is diagnosed in 23, 000 women in the
United States each year and 14,000 die annually.
The challenge of ovarian cancer is that there is no
reliable test for early detection. Early detection is
difficult because the symptoms are often vague and
easily associated with other disorders.
Any woman can get ovarian cancer, but the dis-
ease occurs more frequently in women who:
• Are of Ashkenazi (Eastern and Central
European) Jewish ancestry, with or without a
family history of breast or ovarian cancer.
Researchers have identified two BRCA1
mutations and one BRCA2 mutation that are
particularly prevalent in this group;
• Are older than 50 or have gone through
• Have breast cancer in two or more close
relatives, such as mother or sister;
• Have a history of early onset of breast can-
cer in family members, often before age 45;
• Have a history of breast cancer in more
than one generation;
• Have _frequent occurrence of ovarian can-
cer within the family.
Dr. Tainsky, an Orthodox Jew, was drawn toward
ovarian cancer research because of the significant
Dr. Michael Minsky
number of Jewish women who are diagnosed with
The screening test he is developing is based on the
patterns of proteins found in a patient's blood serum
by detecting subtle antibodies circulating in the
These antibodies may reflect the early presence of
the disease because the body's immune system kicks
in at this early stage as it regards the tumor as a for-
eign substance, and creates anti-tumor antibodies to
fight the foreign invader. In this way, the test can
use the serum proteins to detect ovarian cancer, even
at very early stages. The screening test can be com-
pleted in a matter of hours.
When the test gains approval from the U.S. Food
and Drug Administration, Dr. Tainsky believes it
will be available to women with BRCA1 mutations
at high-risk clinics in 2-3 years and to the general
public in 4-6 years.
The current test for detection of ovarian cancer is
the CA 125 marker for cancer. It is a blood test that
measures the level of a protein that's abnormally
high in about 80 percent of women who have
advanced ovarian cancer.
This level is also elevated in about half of those in
the early stages of the disease.
The problem is that CA 125 is not specific to
ovarian cancer. It can be elevated in many other
types of cancer and having an elevated level doesn't
always mean that cancer is present. It often produces
false positives in the general population and in
women with benign gynecological disease.
"The diagnostic test relies on software that detects
patterns of key proteins in the blood," explains Dr.
Tainsky "We use a very sophisticated artificial intelli-
gence computer program and train the computer to
distinguish between patterns of small proteins found in
the blood of cancer patients vs. control samples.
Michael A. Tainsky, Ph.D., is an observant Jew liv-
ing in West Bloomfield with his wife, Brenda, an
optician. Two of their sons attend a yeshivah, a third
son teaches school in Seattle and a daughter works
Dr. Tainsky grew up in Brooklyn and earned his
bachelor's degree at New York University and his
Ph.D. in molecular biology at Cornell. He came to
the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute in 1998
from the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Texas.
One of his goals was to develop new programs cen-
tering on cancer genetics at Karmanos.
Dr. Tainsky believes the public needs genetic liter-
acy so that the general population and higher-risk
populations for genetic-type cancers understand the