Dr Olga Sukocheva (pictured), a research fellow based in the Flinders Centre for Cancer Prevention and Control, is undertaking a new project to see whether oestrogen, the female sex hormone, can protect against, or halt the progression of, oesophageal cancer.
As men are eight times more likely than women to be diagnosed with oesophageal cancer and to die from it, Dr Sukocheva said there was a strong chance oestrogen could be used as a defence mechanism to prevent or slow the disease.
“Research shows men have a strong predisposition to this invasive carcinoma, and they also progress to the disease from Barrett’s oesophagus, a condition which affects the lining of the oesophagus, at twice the rate of females,” Dr Sukocheva said.
“When women are diagnosed it’s often after menopause, when oestrogen levels have significantly decreased, so there’s every chance oestrogen can protect against oesophageal cancer.
“This has certainly proved to be the case in other gastrointestinal cancers such as gastric and colon cancers but the study of oestrogen and its therapeutic potential for oesophageal cancer is pioneering because it hasn’t been widely researched.”
As part of her project, Dr Sukocheva is examining the effect of selective oestrogen receptor modulators in cultured human oesophageal adenocarcinoma cells to see whether the hormone-like substances could kill cancerous cells.
“We have already discovered that oestrogen receptor modulators can slow down the growth of oesophageal adenocarcinoma cells but we don’t know how – it may be the case that it can only protect people from getting it but not actually stop the progression of the disease when you have it.
“It’s a relatively new area of study and any findings regarding oestrogen signalling mechanisms in oesophageal adenocarcinoma cells are novel and have a potential to be used for further clinical application.”
Dr Sukocheva said scientists have traditionally shied away from investigating oestrogen as an anti-cancer agent because it actually stimulates the growth of 70 per cent of oestrogen receptor positive breast tumours in women.
“For the majority of scientists, oestrogen has always been associated with breast cancer so researchers haven’t really explored its role as a preventative measure in gastrointestinal types of cancers,” she said.
“But at the end of the day, oesophageal cancer remains one of the deadliest forms of gastrointestinal cancer, with a five-year survival rate of about 16 per cent.
“This is relatively low compared to other cancers so hopefully the insights we gain from this research will be translated into better ways of treating oesophageal cancer and increasing patient survival.”
The project has been funded through a $35,000 grant from the Cancer Council SA.