Rancho Santa Fe couple’s gift leads to ovarian cancer research breakthrough

A Rancho Santa Fe couple — as a way of coping with the death of their daughter from ovarian cancer — have helped fund a research breakthrough that could lead to a method of detecting the disease at an earlier stage and increasing ovarian cancer survival rates.

“You never get over the death of a child, but you need to get by it,” said Matthew Strauss. To deal with their loss and help others at the same time, the couple created the Iris and Matthew Strauss Center for Early Detection of Ovarian Cancer with a multi-million-dollar donation.

Four years later, researchers have announced a major breakthrough — the discovery of six genetic markers, called mRNA isoforms, that are produced by ovarian cancer cells but not by normal cells. The research was carried out by scientists at the UC San Diego School of Medicine and the Moores Cancer Center, and could lead to an early stage test for ovarian cancer, as well as possible targeted treatments for the disease.

An article about the findings was published May 25 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences.

“The study could not have been done without (the Strauss family’s) support,” said Kelly Frazer, a professor at the UC San Diego medical school and one of the study’s co-authors. Additional funding came from the National Cancer Institute and the Colleen’s Dream Foundation.

Frazer said the study took advantage of some relatively new scientific developments: the compilation of a large database of genetic information about different types of cancer, funded through the National Institutes of Health, and improved techniques for analyzing the data.

“It’s a brand-new research front,” said Frazer.

“The fact that we were able to come up with a molecule found in ovarian tumors and not in (healthy) adult tissues … people have been thinking about this, but it’s been very difficult to achieve. We’re very excited we were able to accomplish this,” she said.

The research was carried out in two phases, Frazer said. First, scientists analyzed data to identify the genetic material present in ovarian cancer cells, but not in normal cells. Second, they compared cancer and normal cells in the lab to verify the findings of the analytical phase.

Ovarian cancer is a particularly insidious disease because normally it is not detected until its later stages, Frazer said. When cases are detected early, which happens only about 15 percent of the time, five-year survival rates jump from 20 or 30 percent to higher than 90 percent, she said.

Researchers will now launch clinical trials in an effort to develop a test, similar to the pap smear used to detect cervical cancer, that will be effective at diagnosing ovarian cancer.

“That’s the next stage, that’s what we’re working on now,” Frazer said.

Researchers also believe the genetic markers could lead to development of a treatment that targets ovarian cancer tumors, she said.

The Strausses’ daughter, Stefanie Dawn Strauss, died in 2006 at age 41, about 18 months after her diagnosis.

“She was just a beautiful woman,” said Matthew Strauss of his daughter, the mother of three children. “The three children, of course, are Stef’s legacy.”

Strauss, a real estate developer, and his wife, Iris, a community volunteer, are active supporters of the arts in San Diego besides contributing to cancer research.

Another legacy of Stefanie Dawn Strauss was her determination, after her diagnosis, to raise awareness about the disease and the importance of early detection. During her cancer battle, she spoke at public events, urging women to recognize the symptoms by listening to their bodies, and to become their own advocates.

Matthew Strauss said he and his wife are pleased by the results from the research study, and the promise they hold for ovarian cancer patients.

“We’re getting some gratification now that our major investment seems to be finally paying off,” he said.

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