Leading Researchers Address Hope for Early Detection and Treatments for Lung Cancer

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Victoria Shapiro
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LUNGevity, Nation’s Largest Lung Cancer-focused Nonprofit Funds Critical, Encouraging Research

WASHINGTON (May 17, 2012) – LUNGevity Foundation, the nation’s largest lung cancer-focused nonprofit, is pleased to note promising updates in researchers’ quest for early detection and treatments for lung cancer during May, Lung Cancer Hope Month. Renowned researchers and LUNGevity Science Board Members, including Dr. Pierre Massion, Vanderbilt University Medical Center; and Dr. Martin “Mac” Cheever, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, University of Washington; as well as LUNGevity grant awardees including Dr. John V. Heymach, University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, see progress and promise in the ongoing quest for early detection protocols and treatment.

“The research that is giving us reason to be hopeful—from identifying biomarkers for the early detection of the disease, to tumor genomic changes for targeted therapies—is possible in no small part because of the commitment and funding of LUNGevity Foundation and other private sources of funding, which are working to help fill the gap in public sector funding,” said Dr. Pierre Massion, Chair of LUNGevity’s Science Board.

“I’m a two time lung cancer survivor and without advancements in lung cancer research that lead to new and effective treatment options, the odds are not in my favor,” said Matt Ellefson, who started targeted gene therapy for the treatment of his lung cancer in October 2011. “Lung cancer patients rely on the hope that we will live long enough to allow for the development of a new treatment that will extend our lives. Thanks to funding and grants from organizations like LUNGevity, cancer research has made some great strides in the last five years.”

The nation’s largest nonprofit funder of lung cancer research, LUNGevity is part of a network of lung cancer nonprofits, pharmaceutical companies and government agencies that is funding research already making a difference in the lives of lung cancer patients, with great potential for the future. In 2011 alone, the Foundation awarded $2 million to fund nine of the most promising lung cancer research proposals in the areas of early detection and targeted therapeutics. 

“LUNGevity Foundation is pleased that progress in research gives reason to be hopeful about the quest for treatments and earlier diagnosis for lung cancer patients,” said LUNGevity Foundation President Andrea Stern Ferris. “We just concluded an update meeting from our 2011 research grant awardees, and it’s encouraging to see what an impact funding for research can have on saving lives. Lung cancer is the nation’s number one cancer killer, but compared to other cancers, it receives relatively little government funding. Progress in research is showing that with proper funding, we can make a difference, there is hope.”

LUNGevity’s Science Board Members and grantees report progress and reasons to be hopeful in areas of early detection and treatments as noted below.

Early detection:                                                                                                        

According to Dr. Massion, the National Cancer Institute’s 2011 report of the results of the National Lung Screening Trial, using a CT scan for the screening of the disease, marked huge progress for lung cancer’s early detection in current and heavy smokers, ages 55-74. For the first time, researchers were able to demonstrate that screening this population with low dose CT screening showed a 20 percent decrease in mortality rates related to lung cancer. If the same guidelines were extended to the entire at risk population, as many as 11,000 lives per year could be saved, as lung cancer detected early is highly treatable.

Promising research is being funded by LUNGevity to help non-invasively determine whether nodules identified on a CT scan are cancerous and malignant, using blood and sputum biomarkers.

LUNGevity believes in the importance of early detection and is working to ensure that a cost effective, widely available test is developed and available to all at risk, smokers and nonsmokers alike. Foundation funded researchers are reporting progress in the creation of  new tools that are helping researchers learn more about the some 30,000 never smokers who are diagnosed with lung cancer each year, as well as the current or former smoker population. Progress is being made in research for the development of blood biomarkers, molecular technology and imaging technologies.

In addition to early detection, with newly developed genome sequencing capabilities, researchers are now able to profile tumor genes for mutations, which will help doctors develop greater targeted therapies for lung cancer in the future.

Therapeutics:

“The rate of progress in treating lung cancer is only accelerating,” said Dr. Heymach, who received a 2011 LUNGevity research grant to help determine which non-small cell lung cancer patients are most likely to benefit from a VEGF inhibitor.“The advances we’ve seen in the past couple of years are just the tip of the iceberg. There is very little doubt that even five years from now, the way we treat lung cancer will be unrecognizable to today’s clinicians,” Heymach noted.

From the 1970’s until the early part of this decade, lung cancer was treated with chemotherapy and thought to be essentially untreatable. Now, through tumor mutation discoveries, researchers believe that lung cancer is best understood as a collection of different diseases, each requiring a different treatment approach. According to Dr. Heymach, key advancing treatment areas include: targeting and treating specific mutations and tumor cells; immunotherapy; and antiangiogenic therapy (cutting off the blood supply to lung cancer tumors).

Lung cancer tumors often develop resistance to treatments. Researchers are creating better tools to help overcome this. Heymach’s LUNGevity funded VEGF inhibitor research could in fact provide critical insights into some of these tumors’ methods of resisting treatment, helping guide treatment options. Researchers have gained understanding from treatments of diseases such as HIV, which mutate often, and are developing combinations of different drugs to help treat lung cancer mutations. Though there is not yet a cure for lung cancer, research progress to date means there are now patients whose lives are being greatly extended.

Immunotherapy:                                                                                          

Immunotherapy, using special drugs to help the body’s own immune system fight the disease, is at an exciting stage of development according to Dr. Cheever. There is very good preliminary evidence that indicates lung cancer may be an immunologically responsive cancer.

The body has a group of cells called T cells, a type of white blood cell that normally fights infection, but can also recognize and kill cancer cells. New cancer vaccines and immunotherapy drugs are able to increase the number of T cells in patients that are capable of killing cancer cells. In the past decade, scientists have made tremendous progress in their knowledge of how to educate T cells to recognize and kill cancer cells and how to stimulate T cells to grow and increase in number. 

Immunotherapy drugs that have been invented and are now being developed for other cancers could be useful for treating lung cancer. There are several lung cancer vaccines in development that are designed to help prevent lung cancer from returning in patients in remission as well as very strong early evidence that some lung cancers respond to a new category of immunotherapy drug that “unleashes” patients’ own T cells.

“LUNGevity is heartened by the progress being made in research for treatment and cures for lung cancer, and we are committed to helping it continue,” said Ferris.

About LUNGevity Foundation

The mission of LUNGevity Foundation is to have a meaningful impact on improving lung cancer survival rates, ensure a higher quality of life for lung cancer patients, and provide a community for those impacted by lung cancer.

Through the support of critical research into the early detection and successful treatment of lung cancer, as well as providing information, resources and a community to patients and caregivers, LUNGevity is creating and sharing hope for cures, treatments and enhanced quality of life for lung cancer patients.  

LUNGevity seeks to inspire the nation to commit to ending lung cancer.

For more information, please visit www.lungevity.org.

About Lung Cancer

•      1 in 14 Americans is diagnosed with lung cancer in their lifetime

•      Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death, regardless of gender or ethnicity

•      Lung cancer kills almost twice as many women as breast cancer and more than three times as many men as prostate cancer

•      About 55% of all new lung cancer diagnoses are among people who have never smoked or are former smokers

•      Only 16% of all people diagnosed with lung cancer will survive 5 years or more, BUT if it’s caught before it spreads, the chance for 5-year survival improves to 52%