Michael Tainsky, PhD

American Lung Association Scholar: Lung Cancer

If lung cancer is found relatively early, treatment—surgery, radiation, drug therapy or a combination of these approaches—is often effective. Unfortunately, most cases of lung cancer are found at an advanced stage, when treatment is much less effective.

Michael Tainsky, PhD, is developing a noninvasive blood test designed to detect early stage lung cancer. He is focusing on a type of lung cancer called adenocarcinoma in women. "It's becoming clear that there are subsets of lung cancer with different molecular characteristics," said Dr. Tainsky, whose research is supported through a Lung Cancer Discovery Award, funded in partnership between the American Lung Association and the LUNGevity Foundation. "Right now we are looking for specific serum antibodies in women with this type of lung cancer, because such a blood test could be more accurate than a test that would look for all types of lung cancer in all patients."

The blood test takes advantage of the body's immune system, which recognizes cancer as foreign, and produces antibodies against it. These antibodies are not present in the blood of people without cancer or with noncancerous lung diseases. The blood screening test looks for antibodies to cancer-associated proteins. Some inflammatory diseases of the lung may produce similar antibodies, so the researchers are working to distinguish between the antibodies of those with lung cancer and those with noncancerous lung conditions, such as asthma or COPD.

They are using sophisticated computer programs to decipher which are the most accurate markers of cancer. Dr. Tainsky would then like to test his findings on blood samples of patients before and after they were diagnosed with lung cancer, to see whether the test accurately picked up the cancer in the "before" samples.

A major question still to be answered is whether one blood test can be developed for different types of lung cancer, or whether a number of different specific tests will need to be developed for various subsets of lung cancer. Dr. Tainsky also plans to investigate whether there should be separate tests for smokers and nonsmokers.

If the blood test becomes available, it would be used in conjunction with a chest x-ray or spiral CT to confirm whether cancer is indeed present in the lung.

The Lung Cancer Discovery Award has provided a significant boost to his research, Dr. Tainsky says. "This is significant seed money that is helping us gather enough data that hopefully will be a springboard to larger grants," he says.