A team at the University of Illinois at Chicago have discovered a molecule on the surface of ovarian cancer cells which could act as a therapeutic target for new drugs.

The molecule, called a fractalkine receptor, is known to be expressed on the surface of several cancers including breast, colorectal and liver cancers as well as some forms of B-cell lymphoma.

Previous work from the researchers found that the same fractalkine receptor is also expressed on the surface of the majority of ovarian cancer specimens and stimulated cancer cell spread when activated.

“We reasoned that blocking [fractalkine receptor] may prevent or reduce ovarian cancer metastasis, because it’s expressed in 64 percent of metastatic ovarian carcinoma specimens,” said Maria Barbolina, lead researcher of the study.

The team expanded on their previous findings in this study, where they found that lowering the production of the protein in mouse models prevented ovarian cancer tumours spreading to nearby sites of the peritoneal wall, bowel or liver. The findings are published in Oncogene.

The findings could aid in producing new drugs for late stage ovarian cancer – the most commonly diagnosed and deadliest form of the disease. In the US, ovarian cancer ranks fifth in cancer deaths among women, resulting in around 15,000 deaths per year.

“The greatest barrier to our ability to treat cancer in [late] stage is that we know very little about the molecules that cause the disease to spread,” said Barbolina. “The goal of our research is to identify key molecules that govern metastasis and use them as targets for the development of new drugs.”