Turning the Tide in Lung Cancer

Lung cancer has a bad reputation. It kills more than 150,000 Americans a year, accounting for 30 percent of all cancer deaths in America. More than 220,000 lung cancer cases were estimated to be diagnosed in 2010, accounting for approximately 15 percent of all cancer diagnoses in America. Five-year survival rates continue to be substantially lower than for any other major cancer such as breast, colon and prostate cancer.

Lung cancer is not a “deserved” disease. It is, however, one that presents intricate mysteries to scientists.

What’s worse is that lung cancer carries a negative connotation as a smokers’ disease, befalling people who often became chemically addicted to nicotine as adolescents by the voracious marketing of cigarettes and somehow “deserve” to have their bodies ravaged. Not all lung cancer is caused by smoking, however, and for some, the reason is never identified.

Lung cancer is not a “deserved” disease. It is, however, one that presents intricate mysteries to scientists. Fortunately, new research may provide some much-needed hope in the fight against lung cancer. Preliminary results of a landmark, federally funded study released in November 2010 provided evidence that screening with low-dose spiral computed tomography (CT) scans dramatically decreases lung cancer deaths among heavy smokers by catching the disease in its earlier stages, when it is much more easily treated. Impending results of the multi-year National Screening Lung Cancer Trial could potentially translate to 30,000 lives saved every year, a dramatic shift in our current landscape.

Today, medicine is uncovering genetic markers to understand how and why lung cancer strikes nonsmokers and more women than men. One mystery that researchers are trying to solve is why lung cancer rates in women have increased over the past 30 years and why nonsmoking women are more likely to get lung cancer than men who do not smoke. Investigators are examining if this gender disparity is attributed to a biological difference in women, such as the presence of estrogen, or whether women are more sensitive to secondhand smoke.

Today, medicine is uncovering genetic markers tounderstand how and why lung cancer strikes nonsmokers and more women than men.

Beyond gender differences, researchers are also delving into genetic links, the role that viruses such as the human papilloma virus (HPV) may play in lung cancer development, and how diet may suppress or activate cancer cell growth.

While researchers continue to comb epidemiologic and other evidence to understand causes of lung cancer beyond tobacco smoke, new treatments including new chemotherapies are in development. Investigators are focused on targeted therapies, which rely on complex genetic data and would be much less toxic to the body than existing treatment strategies. Researchers also are assessing the safety and effectiveness of existing drugs currently used to treat other disorders that also may work on lung cancer cells. One American Lung Association researcher is conducting clinical trials on such a drug.

The next chapter in the story of lung cancer depends on researchers’ creativity and a commitment to change the course of each patient’s diagnosis and treatment. Research findings recently have led to the development of a new universal staging system for lung cancer in 2010, which will assist physicians in deciding the best treatment course for individual patients. Cutting-edge research remains the crux of any advances in lung cancer—from understanding who is most at risk, relationships with other cancers and novel treatments.

For more information about lung cancer, visit http://www.lung.org/lung-disease/lung-cancer