Study: CT Screening Cuts Lung Cancer Deaths
CT Scans May Be Better Screening Method Than X-Rays for People at High Risk of Lung Cancer
Rate of False-Positives
In both groups, 95% or more of these suspicious early screens turned out to be false positives.
This was usually confirmed with follow-up CT scans, which showed no change over time. But in some cases the false-positive readings also led to more invasive testing, including PET imaging, lung biopsy, and exploratory lung surgery.
Study researcher Christine Berg, MD, of the National Cancer Institute, tells WebMD that the complication rate from the initial screening and the invasive follow-up testing was very low.
Low-dose CT delivers much less radiation than a traditional chest CT, but the potential long-term risks of screening, including follow-up of false positives with higher-radiation imaging, could not be measured in the study.
"The data are telling us that the benefits of screening outweigh the risks in this population of heavy smokers and former smokers in this particular age group," Berg says.
The finding of a 20% reduction in lung cancer deaths was so impressive that an independent monitoring board stopped the study last year.
Cost of Screening
The researchers estimate that about 7 million Americans meet the qualifications for screening under the study guidelines. The cost of screening just these smokers and former smokers would easily reach billions of dollars a year.
The National Lung Screening Trial researchers are conducting a cost analysis of the study data to present to health policy makers. Berg says the analysis may be completed by the end of the year.
University of Michigan professor of radiology Ella Kazerooni, MD, says questions will remain about the costs vs. benefits of population-wide lung cancer screening even after the analysis is complete.
Kazerooni chairs the American College of Radiology Panel on Thoracic Imaging and she was a study investigator.
"The study participants were 55 to 74 at enrollment, so we can't really say whether screening is effective for younger smokers or older ones," she tells WebMD.
Risks vs. Benefits
A single low-dose CT scan costs around $300, and smokers and former smokers who want the test now will probably have to pay for it themselves.
"The message right now would have to be 'Let the buyer beware,'" Kazerooni says. "Someone who gets this test has about a 40% chance of having additional tests, and only a very small minority of these people will have lung cancer."