UA Researcher Gets Grant for Ovarian Cancer Screening Device
The cancer is one of the deadliest forms today, primarily because there are currently no effective or widely used tests to detect it at its earliest stages when most treatable.

By Emily Litvack, UA Office for Research & Discovery
Oct. 11, 2016


Jennifer Barton: "Effective screening for early detection  is a compelling problem and a fantastic technical challenge because there's no perfect solution today."
Jennifer Barton: "Effective screening for early detection is a compelling problem and a fantastic technical challenge because there's no perfect solution today." (of ovarian cancer)

University of Arizona professor of biomedical engineering Jennifer Barton has been awarded a four-year National Institutes of Health grant totaling nearly $1.3 million to develop a novel tool that would be used to identify the earliest signs of ovarian cancer.

Barton, interim director of the UA's BIO5 Institute, is collaborating with Khanh Kieu, assistant professor of optical sciences, and Kenneth Hatch, professor of obstetrics and gynecology.

Currently there is no acceptable screening method for ovarian cancer, and most cases are detected when the disease is widespread and likely to be deadly. Although the overall five-year survival rate for ovarian cancer patients is only 46 percent, the rate for patients whose cancer is discovered when it is still confined to the ovary is more than 90 percent. But just 15 percent of cases of are diagnosed at this stage.

Barton's new device, called a salpingoscope, would be inserted through the vagina and would enable high-sensitivity, high-resolution imaging of the fallopian tube, ovaries and uterine wall. The scope would be used under local anesthesia in an office setting.

"This is a new way of thinking about accessing the ovary in a minimally invasive way," said Barton, adding that this type of access is similar to approved egg-harvesting procedures for in vitro fertilization.

"Effective screening for early detection is a compelling problem and a fantastic technical challenge because there's no perfect solution today," said Barton, who is also a member of the UA Cancer Center.

There are currently three primary forms of screening, each with its own limitations: palpation, or using hands to physically examine and diagnose; a CA-125 blood test, which is not particularly specific or sensitive; or transvaginal ultrasound, which doesn't have a high enough resolution to be a precise screening tool.

With her new biotechnology, Barton intends to advance the field and save lives.

An earlier device for imaging the fallopian tubes and ovaries, a falloposcope, also was designed by Barton's team at the UA as part of a minimally invasive outpatient screening procedure similar to a colonoscopy.

The falloposcope consists of two highly sensitive imaging systems mounted on an endoscope that is less than 1 millimeter in diameter. By combining two imaging systems, called optical coherence tomography, or OCT, and multispectral fluorescence imaging, or MFI, doctors can assess both how the tissue looks and how it functions, allowing them to distinguish among normal, cancerous and benign tissue. 

"This research highlights the collaborative approach Dr. Barton's team is using to detect ovarian cancer, one of the deadliest forms of cancer among women," said UA President Ann Weaver Hart. "Combining expertise from engineering, optical sciences, and obstetrics and gynecology, the team is a wonderful example of the UA's strength in transdisciplinary research, and the innovative technology Dr. Barton and her colleagues are developing will have vital impact in the lives of people here in Arizona and around the world. We are fortunate to have someone of her talent and experience."

The UA has filed a full patent on this technology, and it is currently being marketed for license.

While the falloposcope was designed to be used in women at high risk for ovarian cancer but with no current symptoms, the salpingoscope "will be a bit more invasive, but more capable," Barton said. This device will be designed for women who show symptoms and may require a biopsy.

"The merits of the two different approaches should be evaluated on an individual basis to find out which would be most appropriate for women given their individual health profile," Barton said, "but both aim to increase the percentage of patients whose ovarian cancer is detected in the early stages."

Extra info

This research was supported by the National Institutes of Health National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering under Grant No. R01EB020605.

The UA's BIO5 Institute mobilizes top researchers in agriculture, engineering, medicine, pharmacy and science to find creative solutions to humanity's most pressing health and environmental challenges. Since 2001, this interdisciplinary approach has been an international model of how to conduct collaborative research, and it has resulted in improved food crops, innovative diagnostics and devices, and promising new therapies. For more:


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Lisa Romero

BIO5 Institute