Background: Ovarian cancer kills approximately 15,000 women in the United States every year, and more than 140,000 women worldwide. Most deaths from ovarian cancer are caused by tumors of the serous histological type, which are rarely diagnosed before the cancer has spread. Rational design of a potentially life-saving early detection and intervention strategy requires understanding the lesions we must detect in order to prevent lethal progression. Little is known about the natural history of lethal serous ovarian cancers before they become clinically apparent. We can learn about this occult period by studying the unsuspected serous cancers that are discovered in a small fraction of apparently healthy women who undergo prophylactic bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy (PBSO).
Methods and findings: We developed models for the growth, progression, and detection of occult serous cancers on the basis of a comprehensive analysis of published data on serous cancers discovered by PBSO in BRCA1 mutation carriers. Our analysis yielded several critical insights into the early natural history of serous ovarian cancer. First, these cancers spend on average more than 4 y as in situ, stage I, or stage II cancers and approximately 1 y as stage III or IV cancers before they become clinically apparent. Second, for most of the occult period, serous cancers are less than 1 cm in diameter, and not visible on gross examination of the ovaries and Fallopian tubes. Third, the median diameter of a serous ovarian cancer when it progresses to an advanced stage (stage III or IV) is about 3 cm. Fourth, to achieve 50% sensitivity in detecting tumors before they advance to stage III, an annual screen would need to detect tumors of 1.3 cm in diameter; 80% detection sensitivity would require detecting tumors less than 0.4 cm in diameter. Fifth, to achieve a 50% reduction in serous ovarian cancer mortality with an annual screen, a test would need to detect tumors of 0.5 cm in diameter.
Conclusions: Our analysis has formalized essential conditions for successful early detection of serous ovarian cancer. Although the window of opportunity for early detection of these cancers lasts for several years, developing a test sufficiently sensitive and specific to take advantage of that opportunity will be a challenge. We estimated that the tumors we would need to detect to achieve even 50% sensitivity are more than 200 times smaller than the clinically apparent serous cancers typically used to evaluate performance of candidate biomarkers; none of the biomarker assays reported to date comes close to the required level of performance. Overcoming the signal-to-noise problem inherent in detection of tiny tumors will likely require discovery of truly cancer-specific biomarkers or development of novel approaches beyond traditional blood protein biomarkers. While this study was limited to ovarian cancers of serous histological type and to those arising in BRCA1 mutation carriers specifically, we believe that the results are relevant to other hereditary serous cancers and to sporadic ovarian cancers. A similar approach could be applied to other cancers to aid in defining their early natural history and to guide rational design of an early detection strategy.