US researchers have provided hope of finding new treatments to target ovarian cancer after discovering the protein that helps the disease to spread.
Ovarian cancer is known for being discovered too late in many women and is often referred to as "the silent killer".
After it has spread from the ovary to the abdomen it becomes very difficult to cure.
About two-thirds of women who are diagnosed with ovarian cancer find out at Stage 3 or later, once it's metastasised, and fewer than 30 per cent of such women survive five years.
In Australia, the overall survival rate is 43 per cent and there were more than 900 deaths caused by ovarian cancer in 2013.
The prognosis is bleak, but scientists in the US have made a novel discovery that could potentially lead to new drug treatments to stop ovarian cancer cells from metastasising, that is spreading to other organs.
A team of researchers at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York reports in the journal Genes & Development that they have arrived at "new insights" into what causes metastasis in ovarian cancer cells.
They have found a previously undiscovered pathway through which ovarian cells can be transformed into cancer cells, one they think provides an excellent opportunity to develop new drugs, which, when combined with others now in development, may be able to stave off metastatic disease.
Not only have they found the receptor gene that helps the cancer to form but have also discovered a protein, called FER, that activates this gene and helps it to spread.
If they can find a way to target FER, it would be significant.
Gaofeng Fan, who conducted most of the experiments, says there is an urgent need to address the advanced stages of this cancer because currently it's very hard to cure patients of the disease via surgery because of the way the cancer cells move around the body once it's spread from the ovary to the peritoneum, the lining of the abdominal cavity.
"Ovarian cells move around readily within the peritoneal cavity, via the peritoneal fluid, both under normal conditions, and also, unfortunately, when cancer is present. Thus, in addition to being able to colonise other sites in the body via blood vessels, ovarian cancer cells have another way of migrating," Fan said.
Treatments for ovarian cancer mainly involve surgery and chemotherapy.
Peritonectomies, a surgical procedure that involves the removal of the peritoneum, is increasingly being used with the view of giving patients extra life.
Professor Sanchia Aranda says this form of surgery can extend life but the patient's quality of life is often very poor.
While this new discovery by Fan and his colleagues is "novel" it hasn't been reported before and Prof Aranda, like many others, hope it means more effective treatments are in the pipeline to treat this deadly disease.
"It really is a disease where medical science has not really had the same advances as it has in other cancers," Prof Aranda said.