Researchers have isolated ovarian cancer biomarkers that can vary with disease stage through the use of highly sensitive mass spectrometry analysis.

The team from North Carolina State University have identified and measured difficult-to-detect N-glycan biomarkers associated with ovarian cancers in Stages 1–4. Findings showed that the level of biomarkers associated with ovarian cancer does not simply increase or decrease over the course of the disease, but can rise and fall during different stages.

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Scientists know that ovarian cancer metastasis is associated with errors in glycosylation, the process by which a sugar chain (glycan) attaches to a protein at a specific amino acid. The glycans affect a number of cellular processes, and it is difficult to measure differences between normal and cancer-associated glycans in order to determine their usefulness as biomarkers.

In order to identify cancer biomarkers, the researchers obtained blood samples from ovarian cancer patients and cancer-free patients. Once the N-glycans were isolated from the patients’ plasma, they were analyzed by mass spectrometry and evaluated to determine changes in glycan levels between cancer patients and the control. Through this analysis, they were able to identify seven N-glycans with different chemical compositions that were statistically significant enough to be considered possible biomarkers. They also found that numbers of cancer associated N-glycans did not remain constant over the course of the disease, but could vary from stage to stage.

David Muddiman, professor of chemistry, stated that “it seems that our usual and often unstated assumption about the process of disease–that what we use to measure disease progression should either consistently increase or decrease during the course of the illness–is incorrect. The molecular signature of cancer is not a one-way street.”

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