New Study Shows Researchers May Be One Step Closer to Intercepting Lung Cancer Earlier

By Camille Chatterjee
May 20, 2019 10:50 AM ET

A team of scientists, including those from Janssen and the Lung Cancer Initiative at Johnson & Johnson, found that biomarkers related to the immune system may be able to aid doctors in identifying high-risk lung cancer patients—and treating them—at the earliest stage of the disease.

Each year, more people in the U.S. die from lung cancer than from breast, colon and prostate cancer combined.

What's more, the five-year survival rate for patients who have lung cancer is just 18%—a statistic that has only marginally increased over the past four decades. That's due, in large part, to the fact that the disease is usually detected and treated too late: Roughly 70% of patients are diagnosed when they already have stage 3 or 4 lung cancer.

It's why researchers are eager to develop new tools that might be able to help diagnose and treat the disease much earlier than is currently possible. And a new study just released in the journal Nature Communications suggests they might be one step closer to that goal.

In the study, current and former smokers with precancerous lesions in their airways and lungs were followed for several years, during which time some patients progressed toward invasive lung cancer, while others did not.

The study's authors—from the Lung Cancer Initiative at Johnson & Johnson; Janssen Research & Development, LLC, part of the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson; Boston University School of Medicine; University of California, Los Angeles; and Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center—found that the precancerous lesions that became invasive were lacking certain immune cells in their microenvironment.

"We know the immune system plays a pivotal role in the body’s ability to identify and destroy some cancers," explains Avrum Spira, M.D., Global Head of the Lung Cancer Initiative at Johnson & Johnson. "However, what’s most exciting about this study is it shows that the presence or absence of immune cells in precancerous lesions in the lungs may provide critical information as to whether that lesion will progress toward invasive lung cancer. This information could one day underpin strategies to identify individuals who are incubating lung cancer and intercept the development of invasive disease—potentially allowing physicians to spot and treat the precancerous lesions in the lungs at a very early stage."

Ultimately, researchers like those on Spira's team hope to someday develop a treatmentthat has the ability to alter the immune system in order to delay—and perhaps even reverse—lung cancer growth.