Progress in ovarian cancer research – it starts with the patients

Dr. Scot Ebbinghaus, vice president, clinical research

May 20, 2021

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elderly woman holding hands with her caregiver

More than sixty years ago, in 1958, Dr. Rosalind Franklin died following a two-year fight with ovarian cancer. She was only 37 years old. Her pioneering research provided the key to deciphering the structure and function of DNA – and ultimately the blueprint for life.

In 1962 her collaborators, James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, were awarded the Nobel Prize for their “discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material.” Dr. Franklin’s untimely death denied her the acclaim of this prestigious scientific award (the Nobel Committee does not award the prize posthumously), but her role in this fundamental discovery has been well-documented and is now widely recognized.

Dr. Franklin’s story of a life cut short by ovarian cancer remains all too common. Even today, advanced ovarian cancer remains one of the most difficult cancers to treat with only about one-third (30.3%) of patients with metastatic ovarian cancer surviving five years after diagnosis. By contrast, when the cancer is caught early, before it has spread, the odds of surviving at least five years after diagnosis are much better. Unfortunately, only a small percentage of women are diagnosed at an early stage.

There remains a reason for optimism. The pace of change in cancer treatment has increased dramatically in recent years. Advances in research – many of which may be traced back to Dr. Franklin’s work – have given us a deeper understanding of how to target the disease, paving the way for new developments. Specific to ovarian cancer, recent clinical research has shown promise for women with advanced stages of the disease.

  • It is estimated that 21,410 American women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2021 and about 13,770 will die from the disease.
  • Ovarian cancer more often causes signs and symptoms when the disease has spread, but can also cause nonspecific signs and symptoms in the early stages. Ovarian cancer is generally diagnosed after it has spread to other parts of the body.
  • In the U.S., ovarian cancer accounts for more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system.
  • About half of all American women who are diagnosed with ovarian cancer are 63 years or older.

At Merck, we are focused on translating breakthrough science into oncology therapeutics. We recognize that no two patients or cancers are the same, and multiple approaches – therapeutic regimens and mechanisms of action – will be needed to outpace this disease. That’s why we have worked rigorously to expand and diversify our own internal research programs.

There is still work to be done, but we believe strongly in our potential to transform the way all cancers are treated. And, we are constantly inspired to work harder by stories like Dr. Rosalind Franklin’s.

Dr. Scot Ebbinghaus, vice president, clinical research