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SIUC RESEARCH Ovarian Cancer Research
Assistant Professor Karen Hales and Professor Dale ‘Buck’ Hales talk with graduate student Sara Ladley of Taylorville (seated), who is pursuing a master’s degree in molecular, cellular and systemic physiology. Photo by Jeff Garner. (courtesy)

A reproductive biologist, Dale “Buck” Hales, has been directing a research team that is studying a way to decrease the severity of ovarian cancer, the fifth leading cause of cancer-related deaths among women in the U.S.

“Ovarian cancer is a silent killer in women and we need to find ways to help treat it as well as diagnose it earlier, before this disease has developed into an advanced and late stage level when the mortality is so high,” says Hales, who joined the School of Medicine faculty in the summer of 2009.  He is professor and chair of the physiology department and a member of Simmons Cancer Institute at SIU.

“We are working to reduce the severity of the disease and promote overall better health in women.  In other words, we want this to be a disease that people die with, not a disease they die from,” he adds.

Laying chickens provide a natural animal model for the project because they are always ovulating in order to produce eggs.  A woman normally would ovulate, that is, have a menstrual cycle, 400-500 times in her lifetime.  A chicken has the same number of cycles in about two years, allowing researchers to study the reproductive process in a compressed time frame as the chickens develop their own version of the disease, which closely mimics the human disease.

Ovarian cancer has the highest mortality of all cancers of the female reproductive system, according to the National Cancer Institute.  This is due in part to a lack both of symptoms that allow it to be diagnosed early and any effective screening tests.  The most recent estimates for ovarian cancer in the U.S. are for 2010 from the American Cancer Society — 21,880 women are diagnosed each year and 13,850 die.

Hales has been studying ovarian cancer for six years and was the principal investigator for the first major study of using a nutritional intervention — flax seed — to moderate this cancer.  Published in the journal “Gynecologic Oncology” in 2010, the study involved 387 chickens and the results generated considerable interest.  Flax seed, the richest plant source of one of the omega-3 fatty acids (alpha-linolenic acid), was added to enrich the hens’ diet.

Hales worked on this study of flax seed with colleagues at his previous post, the University of Illinois Chicago, and currently with his wife and research colleague, Karen H. Hales, who also has joined SIU’s faculty.  He continues collaborating with UI researchers and their experimental poultry facility in Urbana-Champaign, where the white Leghorn hens are raised.

“The use of flax seed holds so much potential because if the results hold, we will be moving toward a fundamental finding for ovarian cancer that if you change your diet you will change the course of your health and make a difference that can lengthen your life span and provide a better quality of life at the end of your lifetime,” says Buck Hales.

The current research has been funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and the National Cancer Institute, both part of the National Institutes of Health.  The team is awaiting confirmation of a third major national grant.

“Many people have been touched by the tragedy of a missed diagnosis for this cancer,” Buck Hales explains.  “This work is very gratifying and the reactions of the people that we talk to, even those outside of the university like the parents from our son’s soccer team, are very encouraging.”

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The research team is finishing a second study that is four years in length, which involves 1,200 laying hens.  This time, flax seed has been added to the diet as soon as the hens began laying eggs, rather than at a later age that is similar to a woman’s menopausal age.

Karen Hales’ contribution to this research effort is to develop a parallel research path, studying the isolated cells from the chickens, not the entire animal.  “The pathology exam of each chicken is observational and involves looking for both obvious and subtle changes in the reproductive organs such as signs of tumor,” she explains.  “But with the molecular or cell studies, we can break down the process of cancer growth to a very basic level.”

In the lab, Karen Hales is looking at why these cancer cells are growing and what is helping them grow.

 “As we gather results and we find that the same things happen at the cell level that happen in the chickens, then we know we are on the right path with our research ideas,” she adds.

The two researchers have separate laboratories on the Carbondale campus and share a team of about 10 students and research staff.  “We have a group of talented people and have found both the undergraduate and graduate students at SIUC to be excellent additions to our group.”

The Carbondale research team is excited about the recruitment of a gynecologic oncologist to the medical school’s clinical faculty in Springfield.  Dr. Laurent Brard will become an essential part of their research, according to Buck Hales.  “We will have fantastic synergy between the researchers and the physician faculty as well as other affiliates of Simmons Cancer Institute at SIU such as Southern Illinois Healthcare.”

He expects that the group can move into Stage 1 clinical trials with select patients in a few years, if the results continue to support the idea that omega-3 fatty acids will help fight this cancer.  “Because this is a natural substance, there should be lower regulatory hurdles,” he explains.

Buck and Karen Hales met when they were both graduate students in Colorado and believe working and living together has great advantages.  “We both bring work home with us and we don’t have to wait until the next day to share an idea,” says Karen Hales.

“We are science geeks who see this work as more than our jobs,” adds Buck Hales.

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