Theses Doctoral

Understanding the role of lifetime ovulations on ovarian cancer risk across the spectrum of risk

Garofalo, Diana

Ovarian cancer is the fifth most common cause of cancer death in females and the most lethal gynecologic cancer. Globally, an estimated 240,000 people are diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year, with 22,530 new cases in the United States in 2019. Parity, oral contraceptive use, and lactation are protective, while early menarche, late menopause, and nulliparity have opposite effects. The “incessant ovulation” theory has thus emerged, in which a higher number of ovulations may be a cause of epithelial ovarian cancer (EOC). However, the mechanisms of this theory are unknown; one possibility is that the chance of acquiring a cancer-initiating pathogenic variant increases with each ovulatory cycle because of a microenvironment that promotes DNA damage. In this dissertation, we aimed to leverage genetic epidemiologic data to test this potential mechanism by evaluating the presence of gene-environment interaction between DNA repair capacity (measured through the presence of pathogenic variants in DNA repair genes) and lifetime ovulatory years (LOY).

In the first aim of this dissertation, we conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis, following Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) guidelines, to formally evaluate the strength of evidence and to generate summary point estimates for the association between LOY and EOC. We then executed two analytic aims to evaluate if the presence of pathogenic variants in DNA repair genes exacerbated the increase in ovarian cancer risk associated with LOY. In Aim 2, we evaluated interaction on the additive scale in the United Kingdom (UK) Biobank through use of a novel DNA repair capacity score developed in this dissertation, measured by quantifying the number of pathogenic variants present per individual from a list of 163 DNA repair genes, using whole exome sequencing (WES) data. In Aim 3, we evaluated the presence of interaction between pathogenic BRCA1/2 status and LOY in the Breast Cancer Family Registry (BCFR), a cohort enriched for familial risk. In both empirical aims, we assessed the presence of interaction on the additive scale using the relative excess risk due to interaction (RERI) formula. We compared results across the two empirical aims.

We found the relationship between lifetime ovulations and ovarian cancer risk to be consistent and replicable in the published literature. In pooled estimates from 22 published studies, a one-year increase in LOYs was associated with a 4% (3-6%) increased risk of ovarian cancer and those with a high number of ovulations (compared to low LOYs) had a 2.15-fold (95% CI 1.82, 2.54) increased risk of ovarian cancer. We also confirmed the positive association between increasing LOYs and ovarian cancer risk in the UK Biobank and the BCFR cohorts. Although interaction on the additive scale was not detected, there were strong positive associations between pathogenic variants in DNA repair genes and ovarian cancer risk. In the UK Biobank, the presence of at least one pathogenic variant in a DNA repair gene was associated with a significant 27% increased risk of epithelial ovarian cancer (EOC) (95% CI 5-55%). Among women at high risk of ovarian cancer due to family history of breast and/or ovarian cancer, there was a strong relationship between BRCA1/2 pathogenic variants and ovarian cancer, regardless of the number of ovulations experienced.

The association between LOY and ovarian cancer was found to be consistent and replicable, despite differences in study design, covariates, and measurement. We also detected robust evidence that increasing lifetime ovulations and pathogenic DNA repair variants were associated with ovarian cancer risk. Such variants were exceedingly rare in both cohorts, which limited power to detect interaction in an already rare cancer. Despite such associations, there was no evidence of synergy between LOY and impaired DNA repair capacity, but rather, high LOY and impaired DNA repair capacity may be independent risk factors of ovarian cancer. Each exposure may describe a separate class of women at increased risk of ovarian cancer that should be targeted for future prevention and screening strategies.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Genkinger, Jeanine M.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
November 23, 2022