Fast and furious. That is an accurate way to categorize the progress that has been made in personalized (or precision) medicine in lung cancer over the past several years. For decades, lung cancer was treated with a one-size-fits-all approach. But now, scientists are learning more about what makes up cancer tumors and causes them to grow, opening the door for treatment tailored to patients’ unique needs.
One large component of this research is called tumor testing, sometimes called biomarker testing or genomic testing. For lung cancer, tumor testing typically involves removing a piece of the tumor through a biopsy and then pulling out the DNA to look for mutations, or changes, that are unique to the tumor and not present in healthy cells.
But tumor testing doesn't only look at mutations. It also examines proteins in the tumor. The protein that has been most studied in lung cancer is PD-L1, which is an indicator of your immune system’s ability to recognize a tumor. Your immune system can detect cancer, but the cancer will put up barriers, like PD-L1, which can act like an invisibility cloak.
Information about the specific makeup of a patient's tumor and whether or not there are any mutations or biomarkers, like PD-L1, is a key part of making treatment decisions. Information from tumor testing can lead patients to newer treatment options like targeted therapies (medication that directly targets what is causing the tumor to grow and often have fewer side effects than traditional chemotherapy) and immunotherapy, which harnesses the power of the patient's immune system to fight the cancer.
The rapid pace of advancements in precision medicine and lung cancer treatment is exciting, but it can be overwhelming to keep up.
"Patients may see drug approvals and progress in the news and it can be difficult to understand what it all means. That’s why the American Lung Association partnered with experts to help explain the field of lung cancer precision medicine in a way that doesn’t require a medical degree," says Deb Brown, Chief Mission Officer at the American Lung Association.
Brown explains that the Lung Association’s recent event, "Tumor Testing and the Transformation of Lung Cancer Treatment," involved two panel discussions with experts from Massachusetts General Hospital, Rush University and Foundation Medicine. The first discussion was an overview of lung cancer tumor testing and the second focused on the promise of tumor testing and precision medicine in the future.
"Educational events like these are so important because they help break down communication barriers between doctors and patients. When patients are more informed about their specific type of cancer, confidence improves and they can feel like they have a better handle on their treatment options," says Brown.
"Lung cancer is a highly complex disease, making it increasingly important to identify a more precise treatment approach for patients, many of whom are in desperate need of transformative options," said Awny Farajallah, Head of U.S. Medical at Bristol-Myers Squibb, one of the supporters of Tumor Testing and the Transformation of Lung Cancer Treatment. "We've seen great strides in the evolution of precision medicine over the past decade and look forward to advancing translational research to help better identify the best treatment pathway for patients living with lung cancer."
To learn more about lung cancer tumor testing and view the recordings, synopsis and additional videos resources from the event, visit Lung.org/tumor-testing-videos.