News Story

Dr. Barbara Vanderhyden is investigating the cellular and molecular events associated with
normal ovarian function and the development of ovarian tumours

The ovary is the female organ responsible for releasing an egg each month for possible fertilization. The ovary is also responsible for approximately 2,600 new cases of ovarian cancer each year in Canada, resulting in 1,600 deaths. Unfortunately, ovarian cancer is very difficult to detect, and there are no good screening methods. Consequently, the majority of cases are diagnosed when the disease is somewhat advanced and more difficult to treat effectively.

Dr. Barbara Vanderhyden and her research group are investigating ovarian cancer at the molecular level to develop new ways of preventing, detecting, and treating this deadly disease. They are also interested in the molecular causes of infertility. Dr. Vanderhyden is a Senior Scientist at the OHRI Centre for Cancer Therapeutics, a Professor at the University of Ottawa, and the Corinne Boyer Chair in Ovarian Cancer Research.

One area of her research involves a protein called Kit that is found in normal egg cells (oocytes) and in many ovarian tumours, but not in the normal tissue from which most ovarian tumours form (the epithelium). Kit is a proto-oncogene, meaning that mutations in the Kit gene can contribute to the development of cancer. Dr. Vanderhyden’s group is investigating how Kit interacts with other molecules to contribute to cancer, and whether or not these interactions play a role in tumour sensitivity to chemotherapy. They are also collaborating with clinicians to determine whether or not Kit might be a useful marker for diagnosing ovarian cancer and predicting disease progression. Another clinical collaboration involves testing the Kit inhibitor Gleevec in ovarian cancer patients.

Dr. Vanderhyden’s group is also using the ovary to study the molecular regulation of cell growth, death, and differentiation. Each month, the ovary goes through a predictable cycle of these events as it prepares to release an egg. These different stages of the ovarian cycle involve sweeping changes in gene expression. Understanding these changes may contribute to a better understanding of infertility as well as ovarian cancer. One goal of this project is to develop an animal model of infertility by disrupting the normal differentiation process of granulosa cells, which surround the egg cells. Dr. Vanderhyden’s group is also developing various mouse models of ovarian cancer.

Besides running a laboratory with more than 15 researchers, Dr. Vanderhyden is also very active in promoting science to young people. In 1993, she established the Ottawa chapter of Let’s Talk Science / Parlons Science, which partners graduate student researchers with local schools. The chapter now has more than 100 graduate student volunteers and there are chapters in most major cities across the country.

Dr. Vanderhyden’s research is supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the National Cancer Institute of Canada, the National Ovarian Cancer Association, and the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation.