For Lin Koperwas, ovarian cancer was a grim, frustrating surprise.
"It was quite a shock," she says. "I was diagnosed accidentally."
At 66, doctors thought she had an ulcer, maybe a hernia. Instead, she had stage 3 ovarian cancer.
"I was angry." Koperwas says. " I was angry because I had gone to so many doctors,"
And Dr. Benedict Benigno, Founder and CEO of The Ovarian Cancer Institute and director of gynecologic oncology at Northside Hospital in Atlanta, says what happened to Lin is common. He says there is no reliable screening test for ovarian cancer, and the symptoms - like abdominal pain and bloating - can be vague.
A late diagnosis can mean a grim prognosis for a patient. Only one in four women diagnosed in stage 3 will survive a year. Only 45% make it to five years.
"It's terrible, because it's very rare to see a patient in stage 1, where the cure rate is 92%," Dr. Beningo says. "They're almost always in advanced stages."
But an experimental ovarian cancer screening tool, developed in a collaboration between Georgia Tech and The Ovarian Cancer Institute, could be a game-changer. It's a blood screen.
Dr. John McDonald, Director of Tech's Integrative Research Center, and his team worked together with teams of chemists and computer scientists from other Tech labs. They took blood samples collected from Dr. Benigno's patients who had ovarian cancer and women who who didn't.
The samples were run through a centrifuge and then mass spectrometer, helping the team identify about 10,000 different molecules, or metabolites, in the women's blood.
Then, the Tech teams sorted deeper,. Computer scientists used a unique algorithm to ask a question:
"Of those 10,000 molecules, which ones can be used to accurately predict whether the woman has cancer, or not?' McDonald says. "And that came down to 16 metabolites."
Those 16 metabolites, McDonald says, were "100% accurate" in differentiating between the cancerous and normal blood samples.
"It's the most exciting thing that's happened in my career," says Dr. Benigno.
Because, Dr. Benigno says, an early, non-invasive blood test for ovarian cancer could change everything for women diagnosed. Helping detect their cancer before it requires major surgery and extensive chemotherapy.
Benigno says it could mean, "Less surgery, less chemo. A greater chance of survival, far less of a chance of recurrence."
Two years after her diagnosis, Lin Koperwas is living her life, knowing she will likely not be cured. But she hopeful this early screening tool will one day help thousands of other women not only battle ovarian cancer, but beat it.
"The possibilities are endless, if it's caught early," she says.