Researchers target lung cancer in nonsmokers

Lung cancer in people who have never smoked has a higher death rate than liver cancer, ovarian cancer and brain cancer.
December 13, 2011

Last week, Dr. Jonathan D’Cunha removed lung tumors from a man who had never puffed on a cigarette.

D’Cunha is part of a University of Minnesota research team in pursuit of a cure for lung cancer in people who have never smoked — a growing national concern that lacks research, he said.

Most people associate lung cancer with smoking, but about 20 percent of lung cancers occur in nonsmokers, said D’Cunha, a thoracic surgeon at the University Medical Center. Since many smokers don’t get lung cancer for 30 or 40 years, scientists think there must be multiple ways to get it, including genetically.

“Lung cancer comes with a stigma that people have done it to themselves, and the best treatment is prevention,” D’Cunha said.

Lung cancer kills more people than breast, prostate, colon, melanoma and kidney cancers combined — it’s the most deadly cancer, accounting for 30 percent of cancer deaths. But not much is known about what causes lung cancer if the patient is not a smoker, D’Cunha said, which is why more specialized research is needed.

Lung cancer in people who have never smoked has a higher death rate than liver cancer, ovarian cancer and brain cancer.

About a year and a half ago, the head of the University’s Masonic Cancer Center charged D’Cunha and other researchers to create a working group focusing on lung cancer in nonsmokers. The work has “gotten a lot of steam” in the last six months, D’Cunha said.

In November, a new entry point for lung cancer patients opened at the University Medical Center: the Lung Nodule Clinic, led by one of the researchers in the group, Joel McCauley.

“We’re making a push right now to try to encourage patients who are not smokers who have developed lung cancer to come to our institution so we can do comparative studies,” McCauley said.

The researchers’ work is translational — they examine the cancer cell genetics in humans and then test their treatment theories in mice. Because the life cycle of a mouse is so much shorter, the testing period is faster. Once it’s done, the researchers can bring what works back to human cells.

It took the team a long time to get approvals for research design, to obtain and breed mice with a specific genetic profile and to collect tissue samples. Now, much of the necessary infrastructure is in place to move into patient recruitment and data collection phase, D’Cunha said.

One of the neat things about tackling this problem at the University, D’Cunha said, is that all the resources he needs are close. He can extract a tumor during an operation, place it in liquid nitrogen and walk upstairs to a nearby lab.

So far, the group has only collected samples from smoking patients but now it’s ready to expand to nonsmokers.

Another member of the team, Naomi Fujioka, an assistant professor and medical oncologist, is helping to put together a repository of blood, urine, toenail, tumor and normal lung tissue from patients. The repository will begin collecting in January, she said.

The goal in 2012will be to collect samples at various times from about 50 people who have been diagnosed with lung cancer, with priority given to nonsmokers.

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