Background: Epithelial ovarian cancer is a significant cause of mortality both in the United States and worldwide, due largely to the high proportion of cases that present at a late stage, when survival is extremely poor. Early detection of epithelial ovarian cancer, and of the serous subtype in particular, is a promising strategy for saving lives. The low prevalence of ovarian cancer makes the development of an adequately sensitive and specific test based on blood markers very challenging. We evaluated the performance of a set of candidate blood markers and combinations of these markers in detecting serous ovarian cancer.
Methods and findings: We selected 14 candidate blood markers of serous ovarian cancer for which assays were available to measure their levels in serum or plasma, based on our analysis of global gene expression data and on literature searches. We evaluated the performance of these candidate markers individually and in combination by measuring them in overlapping sets of serum (or plasma) samples from women with clinically detectable ovarian cancer and women without ovarian cancer. Based on sensitivity at high specificity, we determined that 4 of the 14 candidate markers--MUC16, WFDC2, MSLN and MMP7--warrant further evaluation in precious serum specimens collected months to years prior to clinical diagnosis to assess their utility in early detection. We also reported differences in the performance of these candidate blood markers across histological types of epithelial ovarian cancer.
Conclusions: By systematically analyzing the performance of candidate blood markers of ovarian cancer in distinguishing women with clinically apparent ovarian cancer from women without ovarian cancer, we identified a set of serum markers with adequate performance to warrant testing for their ability to identify ovarian cancer months to years prior to clinical diagnosis. We argued for the importance of sensitivity at high specificity and of magnitude of difference in marker levels between cases and controls as performance metrics and demonstrated the importance of stratifying analyses by histological type of ovarian cancer. Also, we discussed the limitations of studies (like this one) that use samples obtained from symptomatic women to assess potential utility in detection of disease months to years prior to clinical detection.