FORCE Cancer Charity is funding an exciting new research project at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital.
Its trustees have agreed a grant of up to £25,000 for an 18-month study into monitoring blood for signs of ovarian and bowel cancer during pregnancy.
The number of women over 40 having babies is increasing and although cancers in pregnancy are extremely rare, the risk of ovarian and bowel cancers increases with age.
Ultrasound scanning is a well-established part of early pregnancy care and has led to a rise in the number of ovarian masses identified.
These are usually benign but some may be malignant and it is often difficult to know which is which and how to treat them, while looking after both mother and baby.
Outside of pregnancy, there are blood tests looking for particular markers that can also provide information on the likelihood that a lump is cancerous.
“We do not know if, or how, pregnancy affects the normal range of these markers so they are not used during pregnancy,” said consultant gynaecologist Katharine Edey, who is leading the research project.
“We would like to change this by collecting blood samples from a large number of women during their routine pregnancy.
“We will measure specific proteins in the blood so that we can identify their normal range.
“We can then compare these normal ranges in pregnancy with the normal ranges outside of pregnancy to see if they are different and if they are, we can adjust the pregnancy ones.
“This means we then have a normal pregnancy range that could be used to provide extra information for women who are found to have an unexpected ovarian mass in early pregnancy. The usefulness of bowel markers is less certain, but knowledge of normal levels will help us pass this information on to the women we care for.”
Expectant mothers are recruited after their routine 12-week scan and have a second blood sample taken at 28 weeks.
More than 250 women have already signed up with that number expected to multiply, thanks to funding from FORCE.
“This grant has helped from day one of recruitment,” said Dr Edey.
The study will be managed by the Exeter Tissue Bank, part of the National Institute for Health Research Exeter Clinical Research Facility.
Funding from FORCE will pay for staff to collect and analyse up to 1,000 samples from volunteer donors, who will remain anonymous.
The research team from the RD&E also includes obstetrics and gynaecology consultant Dr Lisa Knight, consultant biochemist Professor Tim McDonald and Dr Bridget Knight, research midwife and tissue bank nurse manager.
The work will be carried out in a purpose-built unit within the Research Innovation Learning & Development (RILD) Building on the RD&E’s main Wonford site.
FORCE Chief Executive Meriel Fishwick said: “FORCE is delighted to support this research project because it has the potential to help or reassure a certain group of pregnant women by providing extra information to specialists. The results of this work will be shared and therefore the benefits will extend beyond our locality.”