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Blood Test May Spot Early Lung Cancer

Genetic Fingerprinting Predicts Which Smokers Could Go On to Develop Lung Cancer
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

June 3, 2008 (Chicago) -- A simple blood test may be able to spot lung cancer in smokers long before symptoms develop, when there is still a chance of a cure, researchers report.

Lung cancer is the leading cancer killer, taking the lives of more than 160,000 Americans last year, according to the American Cancer Society. Nearly half of the cases are diagnosed at an advanced stage, when the cancer has spread to other parts of the body and is notoriously difficult to treat. Only about 15% of patients are alive five years after diagnosis. The vast majority of cases are caused by smoking.

But not every smoker develops lung cancer, says researcher Thomas Zander, MD, of the University Clinic Cologne, in Germany.

In an effort to weed out those at risk, Zander and colleagues identified a set of 154 genetic changes that distinguished 13 smokers who had lung cancer from 11 smokers who did not. Then, they validated the findings in another 35 smokers.

Next, the researchers looked for the genetic fingerprint in blood samples from 25,000 apparently healthy smokers in Germany.

The blood test was 80% accurate at predicting which of the smokers would go on to develop lung cancer in the next two years, he tells WebMD.

The findings were presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology annual meeting.

Test Could Catch Lung Cancer Earlier

Zander says that detecting cancer earlier gives doctors a chance to step up screening efforts and possibly detect the cancer when it could still be cured with surgery, radiation, and/or chemotherapy.

"By two years later, it's too late," he tells WebMD.

Zander says that more studies are needed to validate the findings.

Other researchers were cautiously optimistic.

Julie Gralow, MD, head of ASCO's communications committee and a cancer researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, says, "While very preliminary, this is a promising lead, an RNA fingerprint, in the form of a blood test, that if validated, will be used to predict lung cancer."

David M. Johnson, MD, deputy director of the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center in Nashville, says that researchers at Vanderbilt are testing a similar type of test, one designed to determine whether lung cancer patients will benefit from the targeted drug Avastin.

"The idea of all these personalized medicine studies is help us to better detect and select patient patients for treatment," he says.

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