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Pennington Biomedical Research Center develops new cancer screening tool to detect endometrial cancer

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BATON ROUGE - One of the biggest forms of cancer prevention is on the offensive.

Researchers at Pennington Biomedical Research Center have developed a new cancer screening tool to better attack endometrial cancer, which is the third fastest-growing cancer in Louisiana over the past five years and the fastest growing cancer among young women in the state.

The American Cancer Society estimated that in 2024, about 67,880 new cases of cancer of the uterus will be diagnosed, and it was also estimated that 13,250 women will die from cancers of the uterus.

Endometrial cancer is cancer in the lining of the uterus: the endometrium.

According to Dr. Vance Albaugh, a metabolic surgeon with Pennington's Biomedical Metamor Institute, the age at which endometrial cancer affects women has drastically changed. He said that when he was in medical school 20 years ago, endometrial cancer was prevalent among post-menopausal women — it was unseen in any other age demographic.

Now, women as young as 16 years old are being diagnosed with the uterine cancer.

When Dr. Albaugh first saw the alarming rate at which endometrial cancer was affecting younger women, he said it was a "no-brainer" to uncover why. 

"It seemed like a no-brainer to look into this and try to put a dent in this problem for young women," Dr. Albaugh said.

In March 2022, Pennington Biomedical Research Center received funding from the Baton Rouge Health District to begin research at the intersection of endometrial cancer and obesity. Dr. Albaugh has been the lead investigator in the cancer screening aspect of the study, and he, along with his colleague, Dr. Amelia Jernigan, have screened more than 2,000 women. 

Dr. Albaugh and team's new screening tool in endometrial cancer research looks at the correlation between obesity and endometrial cancer, specifically looking at abnormal menstrual bleeding. The extra fat tissue women have leads to an increase in a woman's estrogen levels, yielding the growth of the endometrium.

"We took that screening tool to detect heavy menstrual bleeding, which is a very common presenting symptom of endometrial cancer," Dr. Albaugh said. "And we use it to screen this high-risk patient population."

According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, obesity affected 41.9% of women as of 2018. Of 13 unique types of cancer that are connected to obesity, endometrial cancer has the strongest correlation.

"If we can cure someone’s obesity or if we can adequately treat their obesity, can we also prevent or possibly treat some of these other cancers?", Dr. Albaugh said. "And given that endometrial cancer is the cancer with the strongest association, there’s a very high likelihood of that."

One of the key indicators of endometrial cancer is abnormal and heavy menstrual bleeding. According to Dr. Albaugh, since doctors raised the necessary minimum age to 21 years and since less women visit their gynecologist annually, endometrial cancer is becoming harder to detect because women do not know what is abnormal or normal about their menstrual cycles.

"There’s a whole generation of young women in their 20s and 30s that have abnormal bleeding, but they feel like it’s normal for them," Dr. Albaugh said. "That's the thing I tell women all the time: you may feel like it’s normal for you, but it's not normal."

Endometrial cancer is a slow-growing cancer and can be detected early enough if women visit their gynecologist; the problem is endometrial cancer is being detected when it's developed into a much bigger and scarier problem. Minority and underserved women are the most affected by endometrial cancer, which Dr. Albaugh said can be attributed to systemic healthcare issues.

Pennington Biomedical and Dr. Albaugh believe that the new screening tool needs to become the standard of care in endometrial cancer because of the data that it stands upon.

"If we only save a handful of women's lives, that's a big deal," Albaugh said.

One question now lies ahead in endometrial cancer research: If a woman has obesity, how many times more likely is she to have this uterine cancer compared to someone who doesn't have obesity?

That answer is believed to potentially be life-altering.

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