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Gene Test May Help Determine Early Lung Cancer Survival

Test May Help Doctors Decide Which Patients Would Benefit From Chemotherapy After Surgery
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Jan. 26, 2012 -- A new test that measures the activity of certain genes in cancer cells may help doctors tell which early, non-small-cell lung cancers are the most dangerous.

The hope is that doctors can use that information to figure out which patients might benefit from more aggressive treatment for their early lung cancers.

Lung cancer is one of the most common cancer types. It’s also one of the deadliest, even for the lucky few who catch their tumors while they are still small and have not spread.

Unlike stage I breast cancer, which has a five-year survival rate of 88%, stage I non-small-cell lung cancer has a five-year survival rate of 45% to 49%, according to the American Cancer Society.

There are some effective therapies for people with stage I lung cancer that are not always used because it is difficult to identify the best patients for those therapies, Michael J. Mann, MD, a thoracic surgeon and associate professor of surgery at the University of California, San Francisco, tells WebMD. 

“Just matching patients to an effective therapy in a slightly more efficient manner would actually improve the survival rate for lung cancer, which is an accomplishment that has eluded medical scientists for three decades,” he says.

Gene-Profiling Lung Tumors

The test looks at the activity of 14 genes and compares that profile to how those same genes are working in normal tissue.

“We’re able to identify a pattern of biology within the tumor, and that pattern of biology tells a huge part of the story as to where that tumor is in the evolution of its aggressive behavior,” says Mann, who reported a financial relationship in the company that’s developing the test.

Other tests that have tried to profile lung tumors this way have relied on flash-frozen tissue samples. That’s not available in most operating rooms, where tumor biopsies are taken.

Mann says his group wanted to develop a test that doctors could use on lung tissue samples that were handled in the usual way. Usual handling involves dunking samples in harsh preservative chemicals and then sealing them in hot wax, a process that destroys a lot of genetic material.

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