Gynaecology and Gynaecologic Oncology

The department Gynaecological Oncology of the Erasmus MC focusses on treatment, research and education of gynaecological cancers (ovarian, endometrial, cervix and vulva carcinomas) and pre-malignancies. We focus on clinical research but work together with other departments like Developmental Biology, Tumour Immunology Pathology (TIP) and medical oncology in translational research.

We have an enthusiast team of oncological gynaecologist and nurse practitioners who are capable of supervising your research

The department has 4 research themes namely:

  1. Gynaecological pre-malignancies
  2. Novel surgical techniques in gynecological cancer
  3. Evaluation of diagnosis and care
  4. Hereditary tumors

Theme 1: pre-malignancies of the uterine cervix and vulva

According to the World Health Organization, cervical cancer should become a rare disease worldwide by the end of the century by increasing  screening and vaccination uptake to respectively 70 and 90%. In the Netherlands the uptake is around 50 and 55%. In the Erasmus MC we have a special population with HIV and organ transplantation who are at risk for developing cervical cancer.

Subtheme 1.1 Organ transplantation and cervical pre-malignancies.

Patients after organ transplantation have a higher chance of pre-malignancies of the cervix due to immunosuppressive drugs. Many women develop cervical premalignancy after transplantation and are often resistant for treatment.

The student will study the relation between solid organ transplantation (long, liver, kidney), the different immunosuppressive drugs and presence of HPV in these women. The main research question is: Should women receive HPV vaccination prior to organ transplantation?

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Subtheme 1.2 PDT treatment in lichen sclerosus

Lichen sclerosus is a skin disease, with a preferred localization on the vulvar skin. The disease occurs in approximately 1:300 to 1:1000 women. Yearly, around 400 women with this chronic disease visit our outpatient clinic at Erasmus MC. Apart from the impact of the disease on patient wellbeing due to physical complaints, these women are at risk for develop vulvar premalignancies and malignancies. The current standard treatment is lifelong treatment with ultrapotent corticosteroid ointment, however there are promising results in small studies investigating ALA-PDT (photodynamic therapy).

The student will start up and carry out a randomized controlled trial, comparing standard treatment with ultrapotent corticosteroids and photodynamic therapy using ALA-PDT.

The main research question is: Does ALA-PDT lead to more complete remissions of lichen sclerosus than standard treatment with ultrapotent corticosteroid ointment?

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Theme 2: Novel surgical techniques in gynaecological tumours

In this research theme we study the effect of our surgery. Especially in vulvar cancer we tend to do less radical surgery in order to spare the function of the vulva.

Subtheme 2.1 How do preoperative tumor characteristics relate to the presence of a tumor positive sentinel node? Development of a prediction model.

In recent decades the treatment of early stage vulvar cancer has changed to performing the sentinel node procedure to detect groin metastases in selected cases, as opposed to a complete inguinal lymph node dissection as done in the past and in high risk cases.

Currently the protocol recommends complete node dissection in case the sentinel node is not visible on the preoperative lymph node scintigraphy, or when the node is not found during surgery, when exploring the groin, regardless of the a- priority risk of positive lymph node status. In daily practice we might act differently; based on the size, the depth of tumor infiltration and the presence of poor prognostic signs we can discuss with the patients to omit a complete inguinal node dissection when the sentinel node procedure fails. (experience based).

Vulvar cancer patients are eligible for a sentinel node procedure in case: tumor FIGO T1, less than 4 cm, squamous cell cancer with a depth of invasion more than 1 mm and clinically non- suspicious inguinofemoral lymph nodes.

Only in older papers and in the classical text books do we find any information about the relationship between tumor infiltration depth and the probability to find a positive inguinal node. These data refer to the time that a complete node dissection was performed in all vulvar cancer patients and it is unclear how patients were selected for these studies. There is no information on the relationship between preoperative tumor infiltration (and other factors) and positive or negative sentinel nodes in patients eligible for the sentinel node procedure. Nor do we know the relationship between the postoperative assessment of the vulvar tumor and the status of the sentinel node in this patient group.

The main aim of the study is to establish the relationship between pre- and postoperative findings and to create a prognostic model based on simple and unambiguous clinical and pathological parameters.

The first step is a retrospective cohort study, including all women treated at the Erasmus MC for primary vulvar cancer from 2005-2021 to develop such a model that predicts the presence of a positive sentinel node. Validation of this model can be done in two prospective, well documented databases, i.e., of the GROINSS_V studies.

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Subtheme 2.2  Can we reduce the sentinel node assessment burden for the pathologist, without compromising oncological outcome? 

The histopathological criteria for assessment of the sentinel nodes are well described (see textbox). The number of slides to be assessed varies enormously, since the number of nodes retrieved per groin can range from 1 – 6. The burden for the pathology department is therefore high. Strict assessment is mandatory; even in the case of single cell node metastases, additional treatment is advised, therefore we would not easily change the protocol. There is however no knowledge about the contribution of each step in the protocol to the final diagnosis of node metastases, or whether a comprehensive assessment can be omitted in certain cases.

The standard protocol for pathologic assessment of the sentinel node(s):
Briefly, the sentinel nodes are cut in the middle, subsequently, four sections are cut from every half for hematoxylin and eosin (HE)staining (routine histopathologic examination). Ultrastaging is performed only on sentinel nodes that are negative on routine histopathologic examination. For ultrastaging, additional pairs of sections are cut with three sections per millimeter. One section of each pair is stained with HE, and the other section is immunostained with cytokeratin.

The aim of this study is to assess the contribution of each step in the procedure and to find ways to reduce the burden for the pathology department.

The first step is to establish what each part of the histopathological process contributes to determining nodal status. Second, there should be an analysis of the actual costs, as well as a process analysis to see how efforts and cost can be reduced.

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