Mythreye Karthikeyan

On the trail of a killer

Biochemist’s ovarian cancer research focuses on growth factors



It isn’t a common disease, but ovarian cancer is usually fatal, accounting for more deaths than all other female reproductive cancers. That makes Mythreye Karthikeyan’s research all the more relevant as she zeroes in on the cancer’s Achilles heel.

“In the past 10 years there’s been a push to get researchers to address why this particular cancer is so devastating,” says Karthikeyan, who began studying ovarian cancer during a postdoctoral fellowship at Duke University. The biochemist focuses on a set of growth factors, some of which are not produced in post-menopausal women. The most recent discovery is one called inhibin, which ovarian cancer tumors seem to make in abundance.

“It’s not clear when and why the tumors start making it or what advantage it might give them,” she says, “but we know that inhibin should not normally be present after menopause.”

We’re trying to straddle both the fundamental science and the translational laboratory-to-bedside aspect. My research is basic in nature, but it can have very quick translational application. 

Mythreye Karthikeyan, biochemistry and pharmacy

Karthikeyan’s lab uses cellular, molecular and biochemical tools to learn more about how ovarian cancer cells respond and adapt to changes in growth factors in the body, and she partners with gynecological hospitals at Duke and Penn State to obtain patient samples for comparison purposes.

“When we make discoveries in the lab, we go back and test the tumor samples to see if what we’re seeing in the lab is really what they’re seeing in the clinic. Then we know it’s not just something happening in a dish or in mice because that can be quite different,” says Karthikeyan, assistant professor in the College of Arts and Sciences. “We’re trying to straddle both the fundamental science and the translational laboratory-to-bedside aspect. My research is basic in nature, but it can have very quick translational application.”

To that end, Karthikeyan has partnered with a company that has more than a dozen antibodies for inhibin, the growth factor that is abnormally produced by ovarian cancer cells. Eliminating the tumor-produced factor might reduce the cancer’s ability to thrive and spread.

“It seems like a promising target. We’re trying to test our hypothesis in vitro and then in animal models to see if it actually works,” she says. “We have obtained a provisional patent for this work.”

She began graduate-level research studies on yeast but soon moved into disease-relevant research. Now in her fifth year at South Carolina, she holds a joint appointment in the drug discovery department in the College of Pharmacy.


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