From birth control to cancer prevention

Jul 29 2019

Associate Professor Pradeep Tanwar

Researchers from the University of Newcastle and Hunter Medical Research Institute are determined to shift the way society views contraceptive pills and reproductive health in an effort to reduce gynaecological cancers.

Female reproductive health has major implications for developing ovarian cancer as women who have children or use combined contraceptive pills are at a reduced risk of getting this deadly disease. 

The University was awarded a $566,000 grant through the Ovarian Cancer Research Foundation over the next three years to continue its ongoing research. 

The Newcastle team has researched the link between preventing cancer and contraceptive pills for the past 10 years. 

The research looks at how changes in female reproductive hormones affect the risk of getting ovarian cancer and how we can use medicines that are already on the market to reduce the risk of this disease.

Associate Professor Pradeep Tanwar and his team had a breakthrough in 2016 when they uncovered the fundamental basis by which combined contraceptive pills decrease the risk of ovarian cancer.

The risk is reduced by almost 50 per cent if women are on the pill for three to five years, Associate Professor Tanwar said.

Women who have not conceived children or breastfed are at an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer. But a full-term pregnancy reduces the risk by 40 per cent and each subsequent pregnancy provides a further risk reduction of 14 per cent. The protective effects of oral contraceptives and pregnancy against ovarian cancer are due to high levels of progesterone which inhibits oestrogen action on ovaries.

The University team is now on a mission to reframe the way we think of the pill, how hormones drive cancer and how we can prevent cancer.

“With the pill, our aim is to shift the focus from birth control to cancer prevention,” Professor Tanwar said. “At the moment, there is little advice out there for women who want to reduce their risk of cancer.

“We expect this approach to be most beneficial for women with a high risk of developing ovarian cancer – those with a family history or genetic predisposition to the disease. This approach than can be expanded to the general population."

Associate Professor Tanwar said his research was personally motivated after losing a close colleague to ovarian cancer. “In the past few years, I have met so many families in a similar position to my colleague. This provides extra motivation to research this area, so other families don’t have to go through the same thing,” he said.  

HMRI is a partnership between the University of Newcastle, Hunter New England Health and the community.