Since ovarian cancer is relatively uncommon among women, compared to other types of cancer, it can be difficult to diagnose. Current diagnosis procedures require women to show symptoms before seeing their doctor for a physical exam. A recent study published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology has revealed a novel approach to detecting ovarian cancer gene mutations in vaginal fluid using a tampon test.

According to the American Cancer Society, a woman’s risk for being diagnosed with ovarian cancer is estimated at around one in 73. Around 21,980 new diagnoses are expected for 2014, in addition to 14,270 deaths. While ovarian cancer may only account for three percent of all cancers among women, it also accounts for the most deaths out of any other cancer that affects the female reproductive system. Around half of all women with ovarian cancer are diagnosed at the age of 63 or older.

Researchers involved with this study recruited 33 female patients, including eight with advanced serious ovarian cancer. Three of these women previously had their fallopian tubes tied. In the three women who had their tubes tied, there was no way of detecting ovarian cancer, since cancerous cells had no way of traveling from the ovaries to the vagina. All participants were about to undergo surgery for a pelvic mass and were asked to use a tampon before the procedure, which was removed in the operating room.

A form of DNA sequencing, known as deep sequencing, was used to detect tiny portions of mutated DNA in samples taken from the tampon. Although it was expected that no tumor DNA would be found in the vaginal fluid of the three women who had their fallopian tubes tied, the other five women with intact fallopian tubes produced samples with tumor DNA.

"In about 60 percent of patients who had their [fallopian] tubes still intact, we were able to pick up tumor cells, or essentially tumor DNA, in the vaginal tract," Dr. Charles Landen, an associate professor of gynecologic oncology at the University of Virginia, told LiveScience. "It's an important step toward the Holy Grail, but we're certainly not there yet.”

Similar research delving into ovarian cancer screening tests have been unsuccessful due to the level of sensitivity required to detect tumor DNA in the female reproductive system. The research team is looking to repeat the tampon test in a larger sample group of women with ovarian masses, including those with early-stage ovarian cancer, which is notoriously difficult to diagnose.

Source: Kinde I, Erickson B, Landen C, et al. Detection of Somatic TP53 Mutations in Tampons of Patients With High-Grade Serous Ovarian Cancer. Obstetrics & Gynecology. 2014.