Cancer researchers have developed a new treatment strategy that holds promise for significantly extending the lives of women diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer, one of the toughest to treat and most lethal malignancies.

The approach doesn’t involve a hot new drug or technology. Instead, it’s based on being smarter about using the longtime mainstay treatments for ovarian cancer: surgery and chemotherapy.

Using the strategy, which involves assigning a score on the severity of the cancer to guide treatment, doctors at University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston have succeeded in removing all visible disease in 86% of treated women over the past two years. That’s more than quadruple the 20% rate the doctors had achieved before starting the protocol.

The doctors haven’t yet proved that the strategy will extend lives, but they’re anticipating a dramatic impact. Other recent studies indicate that complete surgical removal of visible disease doubles the chances—to more than 60%—that a woman will survive at least five years after diagnosis.

The idea was “to take information that’s already known and implement it into practice so we could immediately have an impact on patient survival,” says Alpa Nick, a gynecological cancer specialist at MD Anderson and a leader of the effort to implement the protocol.

Part of the challenge of treating ovarian cancer is that early symptoms often mimic other less serious problems. It is typically discovered late, after it has already spread beyond the ovaries. Making matters more problematic, as the cancer spreads, tumor cells form a coating over other organs and structures in the abdomen and it is difficult to determine the extent of the disease with imaging.

The initiative, part of what MD Anderson calls its Moon Shots project to significantly reduce mortality across a variety of tumors, reflects broader ongoing efforts to improve results from chemotherapy and other standard treatments.

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