Study senior author, Dr Simon Boulton of Cancer Research UK's London Research Institute, said: 'Our findings show that if there are problems with the Helq gene in mice it increases the chance of them developing ovarian and other tumours'.
The Helq gene is important for repairing any damage to DNA that may occur when the DNA is replicated during cell division. In mice where Helq is missing or faulty, DNA damage can build up, which increases the chances of a tumour developing.
The study showed that mice lacking both copies of the Helq gene were twice as likely to develop ovarian tumours and also showed signs of infertility. There was also an increase in tumours seen in mice that had lost one of the two copies of Helq.
'This is an exciting finding because this might also be true for women with errors in Helq, and the next step will be to see if this is the case', Dr Boulton said. 'If it plays a similar role in humans, this may open up the possibility that, in the future, women could be screened for errors in the Helq gene that might increase their risk of ovarian cancer'.
Ovarian cancer is the fifth most common cancer in women in the UK with a lifetime risk of one in 50. However, this risk may increase in women with a family history of ovarian or breast cancer.
Dr Julie Sharp, senior science information manager at Cancer Research UK, said the study pulled together clues from a series of experiments to build up a picture of cell faults that could lead to ovarian cancer in women.
'Ovarian cancer can be hard to diagnose early and treat successfully so the more we know about the causes of the disease, the better equipped we will be to detect and treat it', noted Dr Sharp.
In the UK about 7,000 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer every year and around 4,300 people die from the disease.
The study was published in the journal Nature.