By Robert Preidt
THURSDAY, Oct. 9, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Lung cancer can remain dormant for more than 20 years before suddenly becoming aggressive, a new study says.
Researchers analyzed lung cancers from seven patients -- including smokers, former smokers and never smokers -- and found that the initial genetic errors that cause the cancer can go undetected for many years.
This dormancy can end when new, additional genetic mistakes occur and trigger rapid cancer growth, the researchers said. During this sudden growth, different genetic errors appear in separate parts of the tumor. Each of these areas evolves differently, and every one is genetically unique, they explained.
The researchers also found that smoking causes many of the early genetic faults linked to lung cancer, but these become less important as the disease evolves. They said most of the new cancer-causing mutations are the results of a process controlled by a protein called APOBEC.
The large variety of genetic errors found within lung cancers explains why targeted treatments have had limited success against the disease, according to the Cancer Research UK scientists.
Their study was published Oct. 9 in the journal Science.
"This fascinating research highlights the need to find better ways to detect lung cancer earlier when it's still following just one evolutionary path. If we can nip the disease in the bud and treat it before it has started traveling down different evolutionary routes, we could make a real difference in helping more people survive the disease," Professor Nic Jones, chief scientist at Cancer Research UK, said in a news release from the organization.
Survival rates from lung cancer remain "devastatingly low," added study author Charles Swanton. "By understanding how it develops we've opened up the disease's evolutionary rule book in the hope that we can start to predict its next steps," Swanton said in the news release.