Progress in ovarian cancer research starts with patients

Reflecting on the history of clinical research and our inspiration to continue innovating for ovarian cancer patients

August 24, 2023

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woman scientist in a lab

This article was written by Dr. Scot Ebbinghaus, VP, clinical research.

A history of groundbreaking research

More than sixty years ago, in 1958, British chemist and X-ray crystallographer 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. In the U.S., ovarian cancer accounts for more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system.

Even today, advanced ovarian cancer remains one of the most difficult cancers to treat.

Only about one-third of patients with metastatic ovarian cancer survive five years after diagnosis. By contrast, when the cancer is caught early, 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.

Group of women talking

It is estimated that:

  • In 2023, 19,710 women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer and about 13,270 will die from the disease.
  • About half of all women in the U.S. who are diagnosed with ovarian cancer are 63 years or older.

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.

The most common symptoms of ovarian cancer include:

  • Bloating
  • Pelvic pain
  • Trouble eating or feeling full quickly
  • Always feeling like you have to urinate, or having to urinate often
Women sitting at table talking

These symptoms are also commonly caused by non-cancerous diseases and by other cancers. When they are caused by ovarian cancer, they tend to be persistent and a change from normal.

Helping advance ovarian cancer research

There remains a reason for optimism. The pace of change in cancer treatment has increased dramatically in recent years. Advances in research have given us a deeper understanding of how to target the disease, paving the way for new developments.

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