Dr. Lecia Sequist has spent her career not only treating lung cancer but seeking answers to improve the lives of her patients. She was delighted when the American Lung Association agreed to fund her research, a project that sought to improve lung cancer screening options. “Detection of lung cancer is a really important topic because it has clearly been shown that if we can find lung cancer early, patients may be able to have lifesaving surgery.” After more than a year of research, Dr. Sequist sat down to talk about what she has found and her hopes for the future of her innovative research project.
Q: How did you become involved with the American Lung Association?
As someone who deals with patients with lung problems, I knew about the American Lung Association. I learned more about our local office in Boston after the launch of LUNG FORCE. For the last few years I have volunteered for the American Lung Association and am currently on the leadership board in Boston. We were excited when the call for applications went out from Stand Up To Cancer, LUNGevity and the American Lung Association because at that time I was just starting to work with some colleagues at Massachusetts General Hospital on some new blood-based technologies that might be helpful in early detection of lung cancer.
Q: How did you get interested in researching new ways to detect lung cancer?
I’m an oncologist and have been taking care of patients, mostly with advanced lung cancer, so the cancer was found later when it was not curable. For years I have been having to give people bad news about having a terminal diagnosis. Within the span of my career the low-dose CT screening test was introduced, but it really wasn’t until 2015-2016 that we started doing lung cancer screening in the U.S. I immediately saw the difference with real patients in my own clinic. Now we were finding patients with earlier stage disease and were able to refer them to surgery. They had a good chance of never having to deal with the cancer again, which was a remarkable difference. I became very passionate about screening and really wanting to improve upon screening. Because even though we have this screening test, not enough people are being sent for it. So, I wanted to try and figure out how to get more patients to undergo this test so we can save more lives.
Q: Can you tell me a little more about your team?
We had a pretty large team, scientists from different specialty areas at two different hospitals; Massachusetts General in Boston and Stanford University in California. We also worked closely with a patient advocate to ensure that our patients had a voice. We had all these different voices; basic scientists, clinicians, laboratory scientist, led by me and Dr. Max Diehn who is a radiation oncologist at Stanford. I think it is one of the greatest things Stand Up to Cancer and the American Lung Association has does for cancer research, to place a huge emphasis on teams and how working together can break down barriers.
Q: Can you explain your study briefly and what you were hoping to accomplish?
We are developing blood tests with two different components. One is looking at circulating tiny bits of DNA in the blood stream, so these are little bits of genetic material that came off of cancer. The idea is that if you have a patient with a suspicious CT scan, the hope is that by ordering a blood test you could find traces of cancer in the blood test. If you didn’t find any it would be reassuring that the spot may not be cancer, but if you saw the circulating DNA in the blood it might point more toward cancer and lead to treatment.
The second component which we think is complimentary to the genetic testing is called proteomics. Proteomics looks at proteins in the blood. Of course, there are many normal proteins in the blood, but the fingerprint can tell a lot about the different health or disease states in the body. When cancer is present it might make some proteins that wouldn’t be there in a healthy state. You can imagine that some cancers may be easier to detect through DNA and some might be easier by looking at the protein fingerprint. Our thought is if we use both of these, we will be able to find a larger number of lung cancer occurrences.
Our goal is to be able to tell if a tiny nodule is more likely to be cancer so that we can treat quickly, or reassure the patient that cancer is less likely. We want to make sure we are covering the spectrum and since it is such a small tumor, we thought two additional lenses would be better than one.
Q: Why is it important that non-profit organizations directly fund research?
Historically one of the biggest funders of research has been the government. In cancer at least, the speed of discovery has become almost unprecedented, it has just exploded over the last 5 to 10 years. I think health non-profits and other forms of private philanthropy are stepping in to make sure that this can continue. This pace of new discoveries can’t keep this up without funding. Additionally, it is important to be able to provide opportunities for the next generation. Having the resources to be able to attract the best and the brightest to cancer research is extremely important.
Want to learn more about the American Lung Association Research Team? Read about the pioneering researchers and studies we're currently funding.
Blog last updated: February 26, 2020