Here in the Kansas City metro area, one of the brightest and most powerful of those voices belongs to Andrew K. Godwin, PhD, Deputy Director at The University of Kansas Cancer Center and a leader in the field of translational research and personalized cancer medicine. Dr. Godwin has been a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-funded investigator since 1993 and is a highly published and cited scientist with more than 300 publications. Kelly Cannova and Kristi O’Keefe, race directors for the OVERRUN Ovarian Cancer 5K/1 Mile, which benefits ovarian cancer research at The University of Kansas Cancer Center, recently sat down with Dr. Godwin to talk about his work.
Q & A with Dr. Andrew K. Godwin, The University of Kansas Cancer Center
Q. Ovarian cancer does not seem to be widely acknowledged in the cancer community. How did you get involved in this area of research?
A. “Ovarian cancer is greatly appreciated in the clinical oncology and research communities as an extremely serious disease. Although the incidence is relatively low as compared to cancers of the lung, colon, or breast, the survival rates are absolutely unacceptable and, therefore, there are fewer voices to advocate for additional research and treatments. I was fortunate to start my graduate research career at the Fox Chase Cancer Center (FCCC) in Philadelphia and my postgraduate training at a time when FCCC had world-renowned leaders in both the treatment and biology of ovarian cancer. My exposure to patients diagnosed with this disease early in my career cemented my commitment to improve care through better understanding the causes of the disease and global efforts to help bridge the gap between basic and clinical science in order to improve patient care.”
Q. Therapies for ovarian cancer are very generalized. Do you see therapies becoming more individualized in the future?
A. “The greatest advancement in treatment of ovarian cancer was the implementation of debulking or cytoreductive surgery (removal of as much of the cancer as possible) followed by chemotherapy. Even when patients have good initial responses to this front-line therapy, for the vast majority, the cancer returns. By focusing on molecular and cellular changes that are specific to a given patient’s tumor (heading to individualized treatments), the hope is that new therapies will be more effective than chemotherapy minus the harmful side effects.”
Q. What do you see as the most promising treatment breakthroughs on the horizon?
A. “Early detection holds the greatest hope for cure. We know that if ovarian cancer is found early, the five-year survival rate is greater than 90%. However, only 20% of ovarian cancer cases are caught before the cancer has spread. More importantly, despite herculean efforts, there are still no effective screening tests for the early detection of ovarian cancer. Efforts by our group and others are focused on new approaches to detect the disease at a stage when surgery can be most effective.”
Q. You’ve mentioned before that ovarian cancer is an extremely complicated cancer. Can you expound on that?
A. “The days of thinking that ovarian cancer can be treated as a single disease are gone, as is the idea that one-size-fits-all chemotherapies will be effective for all patients. Ovarian cancer is not a single disease with a single cause. From molecular studies, we are finding that ovarian cancer is dozens, if not hundreds of diseases. Because each woman and her cancer are unique, successful cures and outcomes will only come from treatments that target specific cells within each person’s tumor, referred to as personalized or precision cancer medicine.”
Q. Are there any known risk factors for this disease? Anything women can be doing to protect themselves?
A. “The risk factors for this disease have not changed substantially over the years. Testing positive for either a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation or having a remarkable family history of breast and/or ovarian cancer are the strongest risk factors. Non-genetic factors such as increasing age, no pregnancy, hormone replacement therapy, and early menarche increase the risk of developing ovarian cancer, whereas factors such as oral contraceptive use, breastfeeding, multiple pregnancies, hysterectomy, and removal of ovaries and fallopian tubes are associated with a decreased lifetime risk.”
Q. How far has ovarian cancer research progressed in the past 10 years? What do you anticipate will be the progression in the next five?
A. “Advancements in technology allow us to study a cell at a level that I could never have imagined when I started in science as a kid. With the effort of thousands of scientists over nearly 13 years, the Human Genome Project was finally completed in 2003. This effort served to compile a list of the three billion letters of genetic code that make up every person’s DNA. With this blueprint in hand, subsequent efforts, including The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) Project, are providing a plethora of information and a myriad of genetic alterations, thereby opening the floodgates to possible therapeutic targets. A major effort for the next five years and beyond will be to understand the essential changes between a normal and a tumor cell to better identify its Achilles’ heel.”
Join in the Fight Against Ovarian Cancer!
Run or walk for the women in your life at the 2nd Annual OVERRUN Ovarian Cancer 5K/1 Mile on Sunday, November 3, 2013 at the Blue Valley Recreation Complex in Overland Park.
For more information, visit www.overrunovariancancer.com.