Researchers to explore why cancer burden increases with age


Sharon Stack

Advanced aging is a key risk factor for developing most cancers, including ovarian cancer. With a new award from the National Institutes of Health, researchers from the University of Notre Dame, the National Institute on Aging and the National Cancer Institute will explore why age is significant in developing ovarian cancer, and how it can negatively affect tumor growth and patient survival.

M. Sharon Stack, the Ann F. Dunne and Elizabeth Riley Director of the Harper Cancer Research Institute and Kleiderer-Pezold Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Notre Dame, will lead the Partnership for Aging and Cancer. The goal of the research project is to understand age-related changes that take place in the peritoneal cavity, which is where the liver, intestines, ovaries and other organs reside, and how those age-associated changes may potentially foster cancer growth and prepare the body to receive cancer cells before the disease spreads.

“Through this award, our research team will be able to explore a number of age-related factors that may indicate why advanced-age people are more likely to have a higher cancer burden and why it’s more difficult for their bodies to fight off this disease,” said Stack. “By understanding molecular mechanisms used to ‘prime’ different locations to foster cancer growth, we can target those mechanisms with potential treatments.”

One factor the team will evaluate is how an aged immune landscape, or immune system, impacts the ability of cancer to spread. “Researchers know that advanced-age people with cancer will present with a different immune profile than a young person with cancer, and we believe this difference may play a role,” said Stack.

Evaluating age-related changes in cell surface proteins as well as secreted exosomes, small sacs that carry information from cells, within the peritoneal cavity are another vital piece of the puzzle. The researchers at Notre Dame will use the Mass Spectrometry and Proteomics Facility to uncover how these biomolecules may help cancer cells stick to different parts of the cavity, besides the ovaries, and therefore support the metastasis or spread of disease.

“There are so many facets that are at play in the metastasis that it is important that our initial steps are to consider the various changes taking place as someone ages and what, if any, effect those mechanisms will have on patient survival,” said Stack. “By really diving into the details of these elements and understanding them, this research could have a broader impact on combating all types of cancer.”

Collaborators on this research project include Christina Annunziata from the National Cancer Institute and Arya Biragyn from the National Institute on Aging. To learn more about the award from the National Institutes of Health, visit

The Harper Cancer Research Institute is dedicated to supporting innovative and integrative research that confronts the complex challenges of cancer. Researchers at the University of Notre Dame and Indiana University School of Medicine-South Bend are united in multidisciplinary teams with a common goal: to increase the survival of all patients diagnosed with cancer. To learn more about the institute, visit

Contact: Brandi R. Wampler, research communications specialist, Notre Dame Research,, 574-631-8183; @UNDResearch

Originally published by Brandi Klingerman at on July 18.