Doctors screening women for ovarian cancer were able to pick up the disease about two years earlier than normal, according to a British study published Wednesday.
Scientists have long searched for a way to identify ovarian cancer early, which kills nearly 100,000 women worldwide every year. If it is found early, nearly 90 percent of women survive.
However, most women are currently only diagnosed with the disease after it has spread, when there is only a maximum 30 percent chance of survival.
In the British study, doctors enrolled approximately 200,000 post-menopausal women aged 50 to 74 across the United Kingdom from 2001 to 2005. About 100,000 of those women received no screening tests.
The remaining half were split into two groups. Roughly 50,000 were screened with a blood test. If the blood test results suggested an abnormality, they then had an ultrasound. The rest of the women, nearly 50,000, received an ultrasound only.
In the women who had a blood test first, researchers found 38 who had cancer. In those who only had an ultrasound, there were 32 cancer cases. Using the blood test method, ovarian cancer was picked up 89 percent of the time. With the ultrasound, the rate was about 75 percent.
In these preliminary results, doctors found nearly half of the cancers detected were at an early stage. Normally, doctors would only catch about 15 percent of early ovarian cancer patients.
The study was published online Wednesday in the medical journal, Lancet Oncology.
"I'm cautiously optimistic," said Robert Smith, director of cancer screening at the American Cancer Society. Smith was not connected to the study.
"This may make a difference to saving lives, but we don't know that right now," he said. Smith said the tumors detected in screening are sometimes not the ones that kill.
To know if catching ovarian cancer early saves lives, researchers must wait until the study finishes in 2014 to look at all the data. The study was mainly paid for by Britain's Medical Research Council, Cancer Research UK and the Department of Health.
"Picking up cancer early is a prerequisite to saving lives," said Ian Jacobs, one of the study's authors and dean of health sciences research and director of the Institute for Women's Health at University College London. "But the question is, is this early enough?"
Experts will also have to weigh the tests' benefits against its costs. "It's a big and expensive jump to decide that (national) screening programs might be beneficial," Smith said.
With any screening test, authorities must determine whether the tests save enough lives to merit the financial and other costs, like patients who will have unnecessary surgeries or psychological distress.
Several companies in the United States are seeking approval from the Food and Drug Administration to sell their tests.
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