Lung cancer continues to be the number one cancer killer across the U.S. Research is critical to help find better ways for early detection and treatment so that more lives can be saved. This goal is what inspired the American Lung Association to team up with other organizations in the lung cancer space in the hopes of bringing together the world's top researchers to tackle this complex issue. Thus, the Stand Up To Cancer-LUNGevity-American Lung Association Lung Cancer Interception Dream Team was born.
Over the last few years, innovative scientists have put their minds together to focus on a new approach to lung cancer prevention: Stopping lung cancer before it begins—or cancer interception.
Two main studies were funded through this innovative approach. The Interception Dream Team focused on the interception of lung cancer through immune, imaging and molecular evaluation. The Interception Translational team focused on early detection with the help of low-dose CT scans, based on blood-based assays that examine circulating tumor cells and circulating tumor DNA.
Now that the Interception Dream Team is half-way through their initial wave of funding, Dr. Steven Dubinett, co-principal investigator with Dr. Avi Spira, opened up about the progress made and what it is like working with such a diverse panel of experts.
Q: How did you become involved in the Dream Team initiative?
When the announcement for the Dream Team initiative came out, I partnered with Dr. Spira from Boston University and we mapped out a very ambitious plan to bring together some of the world's leaders in the field of lung cancer research. In addition to Boston University and University of California – Los Angeles, we established four other leaders from four other institutions encompassing more than 35 investigators. Our shared vision was to be able to collaborate and establish a team science approach to attack these major problems.
Q: Can you tell me a little more about this team and how it has been working together?
Well, Dr. Spira and I really chose those individuals nationwide because of their expertise in specific areas in early detection, in pathology, and in clinical medicine. Collaboration certainly accelerates what we can do, and it's important to have the concept that we're a team. We had uniform enthusiasm from the top people across the country.
We meet very frequently by phone, and at least twice a year in person. We have reviews from Stand Up To Cancer, the American Lung Association and LUNGevity on a bi-annual basis. So, there's a very constructive engagement with team members, with our funders, and with the Lung Association.
Q: How did you tackle the complex problem of lung cancer?
We're really focused on three major areas. First, we're creating a road map atlas for how a normal cell becomes lung cancer, and in doing so, that scientific discovery helps us understand how we can treat at the very beginning of the disease. Secondly, we need to have early detection that's informed by scientific understanding. This means finding a way to detect the earliest forms of the disease so that we might intercept these very early abnormalities to help the immune system fight them. And thirdly, we're focused on how we treat patients before and after lung cancer surgery, both defining who should be treated, and developing the best treatments for that.
Q: We're two years into the project. Are there any updates you can share with us?
We've made progress in each of the three major areas. In particular one of the exciting discoveries has been that at the very beginning of lung cancer, the very initial phase, the immune system recognizes those cells as being foreign, and begins to try to attack the developing cancer cells. We think this is so important because understanding this pathway may allow us in the future to actually boost the immune system against those initial cells. We've also made progress in the area of early detection by discovering that the enzyme that moves glucose inside tumor cells at the very early stages is undetectable by the PET scan currently used for early stage lung cancer screening. Therefore, we need to develop a new PET scan that will recognize this enzyme. So, I'm very encouraged that the team is making progress even at this early stage.
Q: That's great, what has been the general reaction to your research?
There's been universal enthusiasm for the concept of working together, collaborating and teamwork. I think there's a recognition now that we can no longer operate in silos, with individual investigators concentrating on writing their papers and making scientific discoveries. True translation from science to patient benefit really requires a team of experts. We recognize that we're at the threshold to one of the greatest transformations in biomedical science and healthcare.
Q: Why is it important that non-profit organizations directly fund research?
I'm profoundly grateful to the American Lung Association, because we need advances in all areas related to lung cancer. Lung cancer is still the major cause of cancer death not only in the U.S. but around the world. And in tackling that problem we need to form partnerships not just among investigators, but with our community. I think what the American Lung Association has done is so profoundly important that each member of the team should feel encouraged that we will make progress, and that progress will require all of us to work together to address lung cancer and the problems related to it.
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: April 13, 2020