Simply changing how chemotherapy is delivered to women with ovarian cancer could help them live years longer, according to an "incredibly promising" study.
Researchers have discovered that giving chemo drugs via direct injection into the abdomen where the tumours are, rather than intravenously, raised average survival times from four to seven years among half of women.
The new method only works in women who have a particular type of a gene, which makes them more susceptible than normal to ovarian cancer.
Nonetheless, if the American research is proven by larger-scale studies, it would represent a major advance in the treatment of ovarian cancer, which claims 4,300 lives a year in Britain.
Because symptoms are hard to spot, ovarian cancer is often diagnosed late. A third of cases are diagnosed as the result of a medical emergency. There have been no life-extending treatment in over 20 years, according to the charity Target Ovarian Cancer.
Pittsburgh University researchers looked at survival rates in 400 patients, half of whom were given chemo by traditional means - intravenously - and half by injection into the abdomen.
Among those whose tumours had normal or high levels of a particular protein called BRCA1, caused by presence of a gene with the same name, those given it directly appeared to survive a little longer (58 compared to 50 months). However, the difference was not statistically valid.
But among the half whose tumours had low levels of this protein, caused by absence of the normal BRCA1 gene, there was a large and statistically significant difference.
Specifically, while those given chemo intravenously survived four years from diagnosed on average, those given by abdominal injection survived seven years.
Ovarian cancer patients in Britain are not normally tested for their BRCA1 status, and the scientists said their study added to “the growing literature” supporting testing.
Dr Thomas Krivak, the gynaecological oncologist who led the study, published in the British Journal of Cancer, said it showed how “a very simple change” could improve the prospects of many patients.
Explaining why giving chemo directly to the abdomen appeared to be beneficial, he said: “It reaches the cancerous cells in a higher concentration than when it’s administered into a vein. This means that it can work more effectively.
“This type of administration of chemotherapy seems to have the greatest improvement in outcomes for women who have low levels of the BRCA1 protein.”
Martin Ledwick, head information nurse at Cancer Research UK, described the small study as "extremely encouraging".
He said: "This study could mark another step on the path to personalised medicine, where treatments are tailored to a patient’s individual needs and genetic makeup to give the best possible benefit.”
Dr Simon Mewman, head of research at Target Ovarian Cancer, said: "The results from this clinical study are incredibly promising. Although it will require further confirmatory studies, this could deliver a three year survival benefit for a significant proportion of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
"These benefits could be seen not just for those with a known BRCA1 mutation, but also those whose tumours express low levels of the BRCA1 protein.
"It may be very important in future to test all women diagnosed with ovarian cancer, to see who could benefit from such a treatment.”
Stephen Adams Telegraph.co.uk