Dr. Ernst Lengyel, as Associate Professor of Gynecologic Oncology at the University of Chicago, is a recipient of OCRF’s Liz Tilberis Award. He was interviewed by OCRF’s CEO Elizabeth Howard.
Elizabeth Howard: You are studying how ovarian cancer cells metastasize through the peritoneal cavity. How did you come to be interested in this particular issue?
Dr. Ernst Lengyel: Ovarian cancer cells seed (metastasize) in a very unique way compared to other cancers such as breast and colon cancer. After the tumor has developed and grown in the ovary, the tumor cells attach to the surface of the abdominal cavity. I am very curious about the mechanisms underlying this very different metastatic pattern and hope that a better understanding will lead to better therapies. If we can treat metastatic ovarian cancer successfully we will be able to prolong the life of women suffering from this disease.
EH: You have been working on your research for a number of years. At this point, are there discoveries you can discuss or new directions that you intend to pursue?
EL: We are currently investigating the therapeutic potential of blocking a signaling receptor called c-Met. This protein transmits signals inside the cell and regulates cancer cell invasion and growth. Funding from OCRF has allowed us to characterize the expression and regulation of this protein in ovarian cancer. With this knowledge in hand, we were able to convince several pharmaceutical companies that it might be worthwhile to test the c-Met inhibitors they are developing for lung and colon cancer in ovarian cancer. We are planning clinical trials to test c-Met inhibitors in patients with ovarian cancer which will be accompanied by translational studies which can tell us how the inhibitors work in patients.
EH: What are the biggest challenges in ovarian cancer research?
EL: I find that the biggest challenge in ovarian cancer research is to clearly understand the genetic changes that transform a normal ovarian or epithelial cell into a cancer cell. Once we know which genetic changes are most important to cell transformation, we can target it specifically.
Another major challenge is to find a preventative agent that can reduce the cancer incidence in patients at high risk for developing ovarian cancer. Currently, the only prophylaxis is removal of the ovaries, which is major surgery with all its attendant risks. Finding an effective medication would be a huge step forward. And, of course, we need to find an effective method of the early diagnosis of ovarian cancer. It is a tragic reality that the disease is usually detected when it is very advanced.
If this challenges are met, it is likely that ovarian cancer will no longer be the deadliest gynecological malignancy. Certainly, the lives of patients with the disease will be substantially extended and improved.
EH: Dr. Lengyel, you have received funding from the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund for several years, through the Liz Tilberis Scholars program. Has this made a difference in your ability to undertake research?
EL: The OCRF Liz Tilberis grant was the first major grant that I received. It really helped to launch my independent research career, since it allowed me to hire a postdoctoral scientist who had the necessary expertise to help with the experiments while I was writing or saw patients. Moreover, it gave me recognition and credibility inside my own institution, the University of Chicago. I was given additional time to devote to research and, therefore, was able to obtain the preliminary data I needed to apply for federal research funding and publish.