Screening for endometrial cancer, a type of cancer that begins in the uterine wall, can be an invasive, uncomfortable and frightening experience for many women.
Two professors and their colleagues at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga are trying to make the procedure much simpler and less scary.
UC Foundation Professor Steven Symes in the Department of Chemistry and Physics and UC Foundation Professor Sean Richards in the Department of Biology, Geology and Environmental Science are testing whether blood samples can be used to screen for endometrial cancer.
Baker Garrison, who plans to graduate from UTC in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, is a research team member. Dr. Kris Amrhein, who graduated in 2017 from UTC with bachelor’s degrees in biochemistry and biology, also is a team member; he earned a master’s and Ph.D. in analytical chemistry from the University of Memphis.
Detecting endometrial cancer requires an invasive biopsy in which a small tube is inserted through the cervix into the uterus and a tissue sample is taken from the uterine lining. The sample is then examined under a microscope.
The new test only would require blood being drawn and run through a spectrometer. Computer software will then indicate whether there are blood-borne indicators of possible cancer. If so, further tests will be recommended.
Symes stresses that the experimental endometrial cancer test does not provide a positive indication of the disease.
“We’re not diagnosing cancer,” Symes said. “If you’re positive on our screening test, that means much more significant follow-up is needed.”
When it hasn’t spread outside the uterus, endometrial cancer’s five-year survival rate is 96%, according to the American Cancer Society.
For the research, blood comes from patients at Erlanger Hospital. The samples include patients who have cancer and those who don’t, Symes said. Samples aren’t labeled, he said, so there is no indication whether it’s healthy or unhealthy blood.
The screening process has been shown to be accurate through research conducted by Dr. Jacopo Troisi, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biology at the University of Salerno in Italy and CEO of Theoreo Srl, a research company. But those results must be duplicated elsewhere to validate their findings, Symes said.
At UTC, no actual blood samples have been used at this point. The focus right now is on calibrating the equipment used to run the tests. It’s different than what was used in the Italian research, Symes said, so getting the same results from different equipment will solidify the validity of the technological process and the results—a necessary step in the overall research.
Once confirmed as accurate, test results from blood samples can be used to determine whether other factors—such as eating habits, genetics and environmental conditions—may influence the presence of cancer.
“If there’s really something there, and it’s really due to just human biochemistry, there may be factors that change things a little bit,” Symes said.
Over the years, through his collaborations with Erlanger doctors in his toxicology research, Richards has collected some of the blood samples used in the research. He also developed the questionnaires that patient volunteers are asked to fill out.
Once substances indicate the possible presence of cancer, Richards said he wants to trace backward to see if there are any reasons why these patterns crop up.
“We can then go back and say, ‘OK, this pathway is associated with exposure to this metal or this pesticide,’ and then we start looking back on the woman’s history,” Richards said. “We need to know what their lifestyle’s like. Do they smoke? How many children they’ve had and so forth.”
Ultimately, tests similar to the ones used for endometrial cancer may be developed to screen for many types of cancers, Richards said.
“We could screen them once a year, twice a year, three times a year through blood or saliva or urine, something very easy to collect and say, ‘You’re showing biological markers that cancer is developing,’ and this is without going in and taking tissue samples,” he said.
“If it’s something very simple, then we can increase the screening rate and we can get more women in there.”