Page last updated November 2020

We may soon have a pregnancy-like test for endometriosis

We may soon have a pregnancy-like test for endometriosis

In a world where women’s health has often been pushed to the back of the line, an all-female team of scientists are leading the way in research for both a non-invasive diagnostic tool and a cure for endometriosis.

Endometriosis is a condition where tissue similar to that which lines the womb (endometrium) begins to grow outside the uterus. This can cause long-term severe pain in the abdomen, chronic fatigue, and infertility as well as a whole host of other symptoms.

Despite this condition affecting 1 in 10 women in the UK1 and being the second most common gynaecological issue,2 the condition averages a 7.5-year wait for a diagnosis.3 Currently, the cause of endometriosis is unknown and there is no definitive cure. But, scientist Dr Barbara Guinn and her team of dedicated students at the University of Hull are ready to change that.

The researchers are hoping to “develop an earlier diagnostic test for endo[metriosis] that is not invasive.” At present, this condition can only be diagnosed via a laparoscopy. This is where a small camera is inserted into the abdomen to see if there is disease present and if so, how much. If endometriosis is identified during a laparoscopy, other procedures can be carried out to destroy or remove the patches of tissue — acting as a temporary form of treatment.

“Like other diseases, if we had any early treatment, we’d probably get much better responses and then better outcomes”

For some women though, endometriosis can grow back, meaning that they will need to undertake this procedure again to rid them of painful symptoms. Different studies have noted that between 6-67% of women experience recurrent endometriosis.4

Due to this, this method is not favoured amongst many women with endometriosis.

Dana Calton, who lives in Hull and has endured endometriosis for the last several years, says: “It is such an invasive and painful procedure to go through and one that must be repeated in order to help keep it under control.

“Doctors don’t want to refer for possible endo[metriosis] as it’s a costly procedure to have done, but if there was another way to diagnose it, we would see the real amount of how many women are actually suffering from this illness.

“This is one of the reasons why endometriosis patients suffer in pain so much as there is no other way to get diagnosed or temporary relief.”

Dr Barbara Guinn, a reader in Biomedical Sciences and researcher, is also keen to replace the current method: “It can cause problems with more endometriosis forming, scar tissues forming, and the disease can come back.

“Like other diseases, if we had any early treatment, we’d probably get much better responses and then better outcomes.”

Dr Guinn believes the cure for endometriosis could be immunotherapy, an area of research she has been involved in for almost 25 years

Dr Guinn’s team are hoping to create a pregnancy-like test which will allow for the condition to be diagnosed almost instantly. “We already know how to make the pregnancy test, that’s just based on a test we do already in a lab,” she says. “That’s the easy bit.

“The hard part is finding that protein that is unique to endo[metriosis] and that allows for us to develop that test.

“Based on our previous research, with ovarian cancer, with just a quick screen of some of the proteins we were already interested in, we found a protein that we believe to be a biomarker for early ovarian cancer cells.

“So, we’re hoping to be lucky again. I think we have enough knowledge now and if we find that protein that is already in existence, then that should make life a lot easier.”

The team is making good progress, despite a slight setback due to the pandemic, with Dr Guinn expecting a breakthrough to come before the usual 10-year timeframe needed for research projects. But it doesn’t stop there.

After studying biomarkers relating to ovarian cancer, Dr Guinn believes the cure for endometriosis could be immunotherapy, an area of research she has been involved in for almost 25 years.

The team hopes that measuring the effects of different oxygen levels within versus outside of the uterus will provide the insight they are looking for. The uterus has an oxygen level of 5%, meanwhile outside of this — and within the abdomen — this level drops, Dr Guinn explains. “We are trying to see if the oxygen levels are part of what causes [endometriosis] cells to act differently, then we want to copy that in the lab to see what changes are happening.”

The team plan to use changes in protein levels as both biomarkers for disease detection and targets for therapy.

“If we can target endometriosis with effective, immune-based therapy in the early stages, we can try and stop the cells proliferating and hopefully stop the disease taking charge,” says Dr Guinn.

For people with the condition, this research could ultimately provide them with not only a much quicker and non-invasive diagnostic measure but could also rid them of their pain on a more permanent basis.

Featured image is a female scientist looking through a microscope in a research lab. The image aims to depict a lab scene, and does not feature Dr Guinn or any members of her team

Page last updated November 2020

Sophie Atkinson

Sophie is a print and digital journalist based in Yorkshire, England. Within her career, she particularly enjoys writing about topics which are usually considered taboo. In line with this, she’s determined to put a stop to the taboo culture surrounding periods and other women’s health issues.

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References

  1. Rogers, P.A.W., et al., Priorities for endometriosis research: recommendations from an international consensus workshop, Reproductive Sciences, 2009, vol 16, no 4., pp 335-346
  2. RCOG, 10 things you should know about endometriosis, Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, September 2017 [online] (accessed 6 November 2020)
  3. Ibid
  4. Selçuk, I., and Bozdağ, G., Recurrence of endometriosis: risk factors, mechanisms and biomarkers; review of the literature, Journal of the Turkish-German Gynecological Association, 2013, vol 14, no 2, pp 98-103