Research Brief

New study discovers possible early detection method for elusive ovarian cancer

Pap test paper
University of Minnesota Medical School researchers say Pap tests play a role. Photo by Hailshadow from Getty Images.

A study led by researchers at the University of Minnesota Medical School found a way to detect the presence of ovarian cancer in patients using Pap test samples, normally used to detect cervical cancer. Currently, no early warning system exists for ovarian cancer, which in 2021, is estimated to kill more than 13,700 women, according to the American Cancer Society.

“It is known as a ‘silent killer’ since women with early stages of ovarian cancer have symptoms that can often be confused with other ailments. Women are typically diagnosed when the cancer has progressed so far that other organs are involved, requiring major surgery and chemotherapy,” said Amy Skubitz, PhD, senior author of the study and professor in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology. She is also the director of the Ovarian Cancer Early Detection Program at the U of M Medical School. “We set out to identify the proteins present in Pap test samples and cervical swabs to determine whether or not the same proteins are present in ovarian cancer tumor tissues.”

This study, published in the journal Clinical Proteomics, found that:

  • The Pap test and swab samples contained proteins that were also found in the primary tumor of a woman with high-grade serous ovarian cancer;
  • More than 2,000 proteins were detected in all three sample types collected, suggesting potential biomarker candidates;
  • Pap test samples, which are already used to detect cervical cancer, may eventually be used to detect ovarian cancer.

“This study is proof of concept that these biospecimens, the Pap test and a swab of the cervix, could be developed for use in the detection of ovarian cancer biomarkers prior to surgery, but it does warrant further investigation,” said Skubitz, who is also a member of the Masonic Cancer Center. “Our next step will be to use quantitative mass spectrometry to determine if these proteins or peptides are detected at higher levels in ovarian cancer Pap tests or swabs compared to controls. Their presence alone is not sufficient for diagnosis.”

Skubitz also sees an opportunity for this method to be translated into a self-administered, at-home test, where swabs could be collected by women at home and sent to a central laboratory for analysis of proteins that would diagnose ovarian cancer.

This project was supported by funding from the Minnesota Ovarian Cancer Alliance, the Cancurables Foundation, Charlene’s Light: A Foundation for Ovarian Cancer and the Department of Defense Ovarian Cancer Research Program Pilot Award #W81XWH-16-1-0070.

About the University of Minnesota Medical School
The University of Minnesota Medical School is at the forefront of learning and discovery, transforming medical care and educating the next generation of physicians. Our graduates and faculty produce high-impact biomedical research and advance the practice of medicine. Visit to learn how the University of Minnesota is innovating all aspects of medicine.

Media Contacts

Main Line

University Public Relations
(612) 624-5551

Angel Mendez

Medical School, Twin Cities