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Scientists map the spread of deadliest ovarian cancer

May 16, 2016

Found in News

Vancouver – BC Cancer Agency researchers are providing critical insight into the invasive spread of the most malignant form of ovarian cancer in a landmark study, published today in Nature Genetics. This is a first in mapping two distinct patterns of ovarian cancer cell migration in high grade serous ovarian cancer.

Dr. Sohrab Shah
Dr. Sohrab Shah

The discovery, led by Dr. Sohrab Shah, senior scientist at the BC Cancer Agency, Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia, and Canada Research Chair in Computational Cancer Genomics, was made possible through genomic sequencing techniques and novel software developed by his bioinformatics team at the BC Cancer Agency. The study was simultaneously published today in Nature Methods. The scientists have answered key unknowns about how deadly ovarian cancers spread, and the composition of the cancer cell groups that have taken up residence within the patient’s abdomen.

The study reveals that many cancer cell types make up a patient’s tumour. This could explain why some cells are susceptible to treatment when others are resistant, leading to relapse. Also, cell type migration patterns from ovary to other abdominal sites identified that specific ovary sites contained many more cell types relative to others. These regions could pinpoint ‘gateways’ of cell migration to other abdominal sites.

More than 300 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year in BC, and 80 per cent of women diagnosed with a high grade serous ovarian cancer relapse, despite an initial response to treatment. Unlike most cancers that spread through the blood stream or lymph system, this study shows that high grade serous ovarian cancer cells have a unique opportunity to spread prolifically throughout the abdomen. In mapping the cell migration, Dr. Shah’s team shows how cells are able to settle and thrive in specific regions of the body causing widespread, life-threatening disease.

The migration maps were primarily determined in pre-treatment samples with one exception. Shah’s team studied one patient with multiple relapse specimens. Notably, only a subset of cancer cells present at diagnosis led to treatment resistance.

Genome Sciences Center Compute Cluster
Shah’s lab developed a new machine learning tool enabling the study of individual cancer cells in cancer progression
Photo Credit: Martin Krzywinski, Genome Sciences Centre

Next steps are to use the innovative techniques developed for this study to define cell migration maps from additional patients over time with a specific focus on determining which cells are resistant to treatment. This will allow researchers to build predictive tools to better inform future care.

This new understanding of how high grade serous ovarian cancer cells migrate within the patient’s body provides insight that could inform future treatment selection. These results indicate that some cancer cells may have had pre-existing properties of resistance prior to the patient taking any treatment. This could indicate that a patient requires a much more aggressive, multi-treatment approach from the start to prevent relapse.

This work is supported by the BC Cancer Foundation through the generosity of donors from across BC who are committed to improving cancer outcomes for those impacted by ovarian cancer.

Quick facts:

  • More than 300 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year in BC
  • Approximately 250 women die from ovarian cancer each year in the province.
  • High grade serous carcinoma is the most malignant form of ovarian cancer and accounts for up to 70 per cent of all ovarian cancer cases
  • High grade serous ovarian cancers have been proven to originate in the fallopian tube, not the ovary
  • 80 per cent of women diagnosed with a high grade serous ovarian cancer relapse despite an initial response to treatment.



Health Minister Terry Lake
“As we move forward with our comprehensive technology strategy, it is clear that British Columbians continue to benefit from projects undertaken by the best and brightest researchers at the BC Cancer Agency. Understanding the invasive spread of ovarian cancer could potentially save the lives of hundreds of British Columbian women. We owe it to our mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts, grandmothers and friends to support research that saves lives.”

Dr. Sohrab Shah, senior scientist at the BC Cancer Agency and Canada Research Chair in Computational Cancer Genomics
“We defined cell migration maps for the first time in ovarian cancer. Our clinical colleagues will benefit from multiple facets of these results, as we defined what cell types are present, where they are found in the abdominal cavity and their migration patterns from site to site.”

Dr. Malcolm Moore, President of the BC Cancer Agency, an agency of the Provincial Health Services Authority
“I want to congratulate our researchers for publishing this important work. Ovarian cancer kills more than 250 women in BC each year. It is my hope that by increasing our understanding of the composition of ovarian tumours, and how they spread within the abdomen, it will help to inform future treatment options that we can provide for our patients.”

Sarah Roth, President & CEO, BC Cancer Foundation
“Dr. Sohrab Shah and his colleagues, pioneers in their field, are an inspiration to our donors and give hope to women facing a grim cancer diagnosis. Their breakthrough is a powerful example of philanthropy accelerating science to improve care for ovarian cancer patients.”



  • The research team developed an interactive map showcasing the spread patterns and complex cell populations identified in the study (http://compbio.bccrc.ca/research/tumour-evolution)
  • Video clips and photos of Dr. Shah available


The BC Cancer Agency is part of the Provincial Health Services Authority, providing province-wide speciality health care. Together, they are transforming health care through innovation. The BC Cancer Agency provides a comprehensive cancer control program for the people of British Columbia by working with community partners to deliver a range of oncology services, including prevention, early detection, diagnosis and treatment, research, education, supportive care, rehabilitation and palliative care. For more information, visit www.bccancer.bc.ca.


The BC Cancer Foundation is the bridge that connects philanthropic support and research breakthroughs in cancer knowledge.  As the fundraising partner of the BC Cancer Agency and the largest charitable funder of cancer research in this province, we enable donors to make contributions to leading-edge research that has a direct impact on improvements to cancer care for patients in British Columbia. We fund with the goal of finding solutions. Visit www.bccancerfoundation.com to make a donation or to learn how you can make a difference in the lives of those affected by cancer.



Media Contacts:

Ben Hadaway
Provincial Health Services Authority
PHSA Media Pager: 604 871-5699

Jenn Currie
BC Cancer Agency

Allison Colina
BC Cancer Foundation