DNA test could avoid unnecessary surgery for ovarian cysts

Testing the fluid from ovarian cysts could provide a way to reliably tell whether surgery is needed.

More than a third of women develop ovarian cysts during their lifetimes. The vast majority of these cysts are harmless, but a small number are caused by ovarian cancers. These cancers often produce no symptoms until the disease has spread throughout the abdomen or to other organs, so many women go undiagnosed until their chances of being successfully treated are low. Currently, there is no reliable way to determine whether an ovarian cyst is cancerous without performing surgery. As a result, many women undergo unnecessary, invasive surgeries for harmless ovarian cysts.

Tumors shed cells and cell fragments into any fluid that surrounds them. Fluids from cysts in the pancreas, kidney, and thyroid are routinely examined to identify whether they contain cancerous cells. Now, Yuxuan Wang, Karin Sundfeldt and colleagues show that ovarian cancers also shed DNA into the surrounding cyst fluid. Furthermore, mutations found in this DNA can provide valuable information about whether the cysts are cancerous.

The study was performed by extracting DNA from the fluid in ovarian cysts that had been surgically removed from 77 women. Of these cysts, 10 were harmless cysts, 12 were benign tumors, 31 were invasive cancers, and 24 were so-called borderline tumors, which fall somewhere between the benign tumors and invasive cancers. Only cysts associated with the borderline tumors and invasive cancers need to be surgically removed. Wang, Sundfeldt and colleagues report that DNA mutations that are characteristic of ovarian cancers were found in 87% of the cysts associated with borderline tumors and invasive cancers. In contrast, these mutations were not found in any of the cysts that do not require surgery.

Fluid can be extracted from an ovarian cyst with a needle during an outpatient visit. Therefore, the results presented by Wang, Sundfeldt and colleagues suggest a relatively straightforward way of testing the DNA from ovarian cysts before deciding whether surgery is really necessary. First, however, larger studies that follow women with cysts over time will be necessary to confirm that this type of testing is effective and safe.

To find out more

Read the eLife research paper on which this eLife digest is based: “Diagnostic potential of tumor DNA from ovarian cyst fluid” (July 15, 2016).
eLife is an open-access journal for outstanding research in the life sciences and biomedicine.
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