Lung cancer is a stealthy, efficient killer. Its garden-variety symptoms -- a nagging cough, bronchitis, maybe some chest pain or shortness of breath -- raise no alarms for most people, and by the time they appear, the cancer is already in its advanced stages. Simple chest X-rays can't reliably detect the disease in its early stages, either: Tumors that are small enough to still be considered curable are often too small to even show up. For decades, doctors have struggled to respond quickly to lung cancer patients. And for decades, that battle has been lost.
This vicious cycle has hobbled efforts to effectively detect and treat the world's deadliest cancer or stop the pandemic that claims nearly 1.6 million lives a year, according to the World Health Organization. Contrary to the stigma that this is a "smokers' disease," lung cancer is increasingly recognized as a threat to non-smokers, as well. In fact, around 18 percent of the 228,000 new cases in the U.S. alone each year are diagnosed in people who have never smoked.
Now, thanks to the work of researchers and doctors like Dr. Geoff Oxnard, thoracic oncologist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, a relatively simple and cost-effective blood test is available that promises to identify lung cancer more quickly.
Blood test like the one Dr. Oxnard developed, referred to as a "liquid biopsy," might be superior for some patients to the standard lung tissue biopsy process, which poses risks to the patient, is painful, and requires weeks before genetic testing results are produced -- critical time lost to waiting. The liquid biopsy, by contrast, produces results in a few days with little more than a blood test and also identifies which mutation is driving the cancer -- giving doctors a roadmap to more effective treatment.
However, one day, liquid biopsy tests may help diagnose lung cancer long before its symptoms emerge -- offering hope instead of a death sentence to patients whose best chance at survival is early detection. This is an advancement with significant potential for saving lives, and beating a brutal killer.
I'm proud to call Dr. Oxnard a friend and ally in the fight against lung cancer. As an oncologist with close ties to the Addario Lung Cancer Medical Institute (ALCMI), and a longtime partner of our San Francisco-based Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation, I was honored to help fund the work of Dr. Oxnard and his team. Their tireless work on lung cancer has opened up new avenues for understanding the disease, identifying it, and treating it effectively. The task is far from finished, but we should all be grateful for their dedication and smarts.
"If we can get a quick result in a couple of days that tells us where to go next, instead of spending weeks trying to figure out how to get a biopsy and get those results, we can accelerate the ability to give effective targeted therapy to that patient," Oxnard told the press in Boston this month.
Recognizing genomic alterations, and speeding targeted treatments, is a key element in fighting lung cancer. Too many sufferers experienced late diagnoses, and steeper fights, than they should have. These challenges, sadly, did not come from the disease alone: Public bias and the cruel stigma attached to lung cancer as strictly a disease that smokers bring on themselves, have also stalled progress in conquering this killer. Of all the major cancers, lung cancer is by far the least-funded per death in terms of federal research dollars.
Because of research we've helped to fund, however, we're learning that lung cancer doesn't just impact smokers, and we're discovering how to strike back at lung cancer, too.
The more we know, the more lives we'll save in the process. That is why science and research matter. It's why funding the work of people like Dr. Oxnard is so critical.
The recently launched presidential "moonshot" against cancer, which I've addressed in this space before, has the opportunity to put renewed emphasis and coordination into the research effort. It's critical that the moonshot support the work lung cancer researchers like Dr. Oxnard and his colleagues.