November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month

With November designated as Lung Cancer awareness month we have the opportunity to focus national attention on this disease, the leading cause of cancer death in America.

It may come as a surprise to many that lung cancer causes more deaths than prostate, breast and colorectal cancer combined. Lung cancer is the big kahuna. And up until the last several years, no one seemed to be paying much attention. It may be that people considered lung cancer a disease associated with cigarette smoking and therefore, in some way, the individual victim’s fault. However, we are now witness to a changing biology wherein the predominant histology of lung cancer, previously squamous cell, has transitioned to adenocarcinoma.

While the incidence in males has fallen, the incidence in females has risen. Strikingly, the incidence of lung cancer in non-smokers is rapidly climbing. Indeed, up to 20 percent of lung cancers today do not appear to be directly related to cigarettes or known exposures at all.

Our recent publication of a clinical trial in lung cancer patients was highly instructive. First, we were able to double the response rate and nearly double the survival through functional profiling (EVA-PCD®).

Second, there was no “right” treatment for patients. Different treatment combinations worked best for each patient with no single combination working for all.

Third, many patients did well with first line targeted agents. In fact, several long-term survivors have never received any form of cytotoxic chemotherapy, despite widely metastatic disease at presentation.

Several questions remain. Among them, the role of the repeat biopsies in patients with recurrent disease.  Several patients under my care have undergone additional biopsies each time a recurrence was documented with the new assay findings guiding us to a different treatment regimen. It is not impossible to imagine a day when cancer treatments will be modified and changed the way contemporary internists switch antihypertensives or cholesterol lowering drugs. That is, lung cancer like these maladies is becoming a chronic disease.

With several patients out over five years this strategy has served us well in select cases. A second issue surrounds the early introduction of experimental agents. Should we not have the opportunity to utilize drugs that have succeeded in Phase I trials, (and are thereby known to be safe for human administration), for patients whose cancer tissue reveals a favorable profile ex-vivo? I, for one, would relish the opportunity to administer second-generation EGFr-TKIs to c-MET inhibitors, to appropriately selected candidates. Smart drugs need smart mechanisms to get to market.

With the advent of lung cancer awareness month we have the opportunity to educate the public and expand awareness of the desperate need for advances in this disease. The disparity in funding for lung cancer patients compared with ovarian or breast cancer patients is disturbing. For every lung cancer death, there are five to 10 times more dollars expended on research to prevent breast and ovarian cancer deaths. While we applaud the successes in breast and ovarian cancer treatment we encourage lung cancer patients to call your congressperson to make lung cancer a front burner issue.

One of our most gratifying success stories is Pat Merwin, now four years since diagnosis. Pat has organized a local (Long Beach, CA) observance of the national lung cancer awareness vigil to be held on Tuesday, November 13. I could not be happier than to be the invited speaker for this important occasion and to be with many of my patients.

About Dr. Robert A. Nagourney
Dr. Nagourney received his undergraduate degree in chemistry from Boston University and his doctor of medicine at McGill University in Montreal, where he was a University Scholar. After a residency in internal medicine at the University of California, Irvine, he went on to complete fellowship training in medical oncology at Georgetown University, as well as in hematology at the Scripps Institute in La Jolla. During his fellowship at Georgetown University, Dr. Nagourney confronted aggressive malignancies for which the standard therapies remained mostly ineffective. No matter what he did, all of his patients died. While he found this “standard of care” to be unacceptable, it inspired him to return to the laboratory where he eventually developed “personalized cancer therapy.” In 1986, Dr. Nagourney, along with colleague Larry Weisenthal, MD, PhD, received a Phase I grant from a federally funded program and launched Oncotech, Inc. They began conducting experiments to prove that human tumors resistant to chemotherapeutics could be re-sensitized by pre-incubation with calcium channel blockers, glutathione depletors and protein kinase C inhibitors. The original research was a success. Oncotech grew with financial backing from investors who ultimately changed the direction of the company’s research. The changes proved untenable to Dr. Nagourney and in 1991, he left the company he co-founded. He then returned to the laboratory, and developed the Ex-vivo Analysis - Programmed Cell Death ® (EVA-PCD) test to identify the treatments that would induce programmed cell death, or “apoptosis.” He soon took a position as Director of Experimental Therapeutics at the Cancer Institute of Long Beach Memorial Medical Center. His primary research project during this time was chronic lymphocytic leukemia. He remained in this position until the basic research program funding was cut, at which time he founded Rational Therapeutics in 1995. It is here where the EVA-PCD test is used to identity the drug, combinations of drugs or targeted therapies that will kill a patient's tumor - thus providing patients with truly personalized cancer treatment plans. With the desire to change how cancer care is delivered, he became Medical Director of the Todd Cancer Institute at Long Beach Memorial in 2003. In 2008, he returned to Rational Therapeutics full time to rededicate his time and expertise to expand the research opportunities available through the laboratory. He is a frequently invited lecturer for numerous professional organizations and universities, and has served as a reviewer and on the editorial boards of several journals including Clinical Cancer Research, British Journal of Cancer, Gynecologic Oncology, Cancer Research and the Journal of Medicinal Food.

3 Responses to November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month

  1. Pingback: November: Lung Cancer Awareness Month « Rational Therapeutics – Hope Practiced Here for Cancer Patients

  2. Joanna Farrer says:

    Dr Nagourney,
    As ever, a very thought provoking and hopeful article. The prospect of turning cancer in to a “chronic” disease gives all stage IV cancer patients reasons to hope.
    I was saddened to read of the lack of funding for lung cancer research compared breast and ovarian cancers. The bigger tragedy however, I believe is the massive waste of the funds raised in the name of breast cancer during the Pink Haze of October. Bilions have been raised and spent over the last 40 years on prevention and yet the death rate has barely been affected. Patients do not die of early stage breast cancer they die of Metastatic breast cancer and yet only 3-5% of all the millions raised goes towards this research. Imagine the turn around there would be if more funding was funneled towards metastatic cancer research including such procedures as functional profiling. The dream of turning cancer in to a “chronic” disease would become a reality.
    Jo Farrer

    • Thank you Joanna,

      It is a source of great pride to our group to have improved the outcomes for so many of our patients with lung cancer, even widely metatstatic disease. As difficult as the past has been for so many lung cancer patients, the future is much brighter. First the disease is gaining the recogntion it needs. Second, the newer classes of drugs are having a real impact. And finally, the concept of individuaiized theapy is gaining tracfion. Your comments are appreciated. We encourage you to re-double your efforts to gain funding for this important disease.

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