If my colleagues spend more than 10 minutes talking to me about lung cancer, they are sure to get an earful about biomarker testing. What may sound like a word jumble or alphabet soup is actually me discussing biomarker testing: a key ingredient to creating the most appropriate treatment plan for a patient.
When a lung cancer patient is diagnosed, it is important to learn as much as possible about that person’s specific lung cancer. This includes knowing which changes in the DNA (genes) of the tumor might be causing the cells to get the “Grow! Grow! Grow!” signal. Some people call these gene changes mutations but not all the changes are technically mutations. Sometimes two genes fuse together or sometimes there is an extra copy of a gene, for example.
Another key ingredient for creating a lung cancer treatment plan is testing a patient’s PD-L1 level. PD-L1 is a protein that is expressed on the surface of the cells and can provide important information about whether or not a patient will respond to immunotherapy.
Lung cancer biomarker testing includes testing to discover if a patient has any gene changes that can be treated with a targeted therapy AND testing a patient’s PD-L1 level. Targeted therapies and immunotherapies are important parts of precision medicine, which means treating a person’s cancer with more precise therapies that consider the makeup of a person’s tumor.
A targeted pill for KRAS should be approved by the end of the year. There are also several other biomarkers being tested in clinical trials which is why it is advisable to talk to your doctor about comprehensive biomarker testing using next-generation sequencing. This type of testing looks at a wide range of possible changes in the DNA and might open up some treatment options like clinical trials.
Unfortunately, not all eligible lung cancer patients receive biomarker testing. Some physicians are not up to date on the enormous progress that has been made in lung cancer and the role biomarker testing has in a patient receiving the most appropriate treatment for their cancer. That is why the Lung Association is committed to providing easy-to-understand information in a variety of formats to help improve biomarker testing health literacy amongst patients. So, the lung cancer community is empowered to be their own advocate.
Additionally, once a patient is diagnosed with a certain biomarker, it can be confusing and isolating. As part of a project called “Biomarker Briefings” the Lung Association developed several new biomarker landing pages where patients can learn about specific biomarkers, the available treatment options and helpful resources.
Lung cancer research is moving at a rapid pace. The biomarker alphabet soup may be confusing at first to lung cancer patients, but it is imperative for newly diagnosed patients to dig in (*slurp*). Precision medicine isn’t just the future of lung cancer treatment: it is the present. And educating patients is a vital step in improving lung cancer health outcomes.
Help us spread the word! Visit Lung.org/biomarker-testing or any one of the biomarker pages and share with your network.
Support for this educational program provided by Amgen, AstraZeneca, Blueprint Medicines, Bristol Myers Squibb, Genentech, Lilly Oncology, Merck, Novartis and Pfizer.
Blog last updated: February 22, 2021