Lung Cancer Genomics: Hope or Hype?

When an oncologist creates a care plan for a cancer patient, we consider many aspects of the individual, including his or her age, other health problems and existing risk factors. Lately, advances in research are showing us that a patient’s genetics also should and can play a role in their treatment planning.

Researchers and physicians now know that although cancer cells from two patients may look similar under a microscope, they can be very different at the genetic level. These differences are leading to new ways to treat cancer.

At Roswell Park, we are using genetic sequencing technology to explore how a patient’s genes influence his or her cancer and how we can use that information to target cancer cells more directly.

This approach is proving to be particularly promising for treating lung cancer. Scientists have identified 15 different genetic mutations that are markers for lung cancer—a significant number and more than we know for most cancers. We have existing drugs, and others in clinical trials, which target these genetic mutations in a variety of ways. For example, some may “turn off” genes that encourage cancer’s growth, and others strengthen genes that may slow or stop the spread of cancer cells.

One of our biggest challenges in genomics has always been about sheer quantity. The human genome contains about 20,000 genes. As I shared, we know that 15 of these genes can currently be targets for improved lung cancer treatments. The trouble until now was that there was no single screening test or system that could quickly sort through 20,000 genes, find the 15 needles in a haystack, and report out that data for each patient’s case in an easy-to-read and simple report. It was hundreds of tests upon tests and reports.

Not anymore. We’re developing and perfecting a test at Roswell Park that can zero in on those genes. The test will analyze any patient’s genetic code quickly and efficiently, providing only the most pertinent information to a physician. The doctor can use the easy-to-read report of how many of those 15 gene mutations a certain patient has to create the most effective, personalized course of treatment and determine if a drug is available to target that patient’s tumor. Most of these drugs are actually pills, making it an even more exciting future of cancer treatments for patients.

We still have much work to do in this field, but genetic analyses and targeted, personalized therapies are on the way to someday being the standard of care for lung cancer patients. The team at Roswell Park will continue exploring how we can capitalize on these advances to increase long-term survival rates, improve quality of life, and apply the findings to many other cancers down the road.