New Method for Lung Cancer Detection Developed

New cancer detection technique may reduce the need for costly low-dose CT scans.

New cancer detection technique may reduce the need for costly low-dose CT scans.

Lung cancer continues to be the second-most common cancer in the United States and the leading cause of cancer death.

This statistic is made possible by the fact that many patients do not get diagnosed until their cancer has reached the end stages of progression. However, scientists are now working on diagnostic measures to ensure early diagnosis for patients with the deadly disease.

“Early diagnosis is key to fighting lung cancer,” said Oliver Fiehn, director of the metabolomics center and a professor of molecular and cellular biology at UC Davis.

Lung cancer can be diagnosed early with regular low-dose CT scans of people at risk. However, these tests are quite costly for patients and pose dangers, as the test involves exposing patients to X-ray radiation.

Fiehn and colleagues set out to look for biomarkers of developing lung cancer in blood from patients as an alternative to the traditional method of lung cancer detection.

Fiehn’s lab specializes in an area known as “metabolomics,” an approach that involves analyzing all the biochemical products of metabolism in cells and tissues at the same time. This is made possible by computing power and new technology, which has opened up new ways to understand living processes.

By accessing samples stored from the CARET clinical trial, researchers were able to analyze blood collected from people who developed lung cancer in order to find early biomarkers of the disease. The CARET study, which ran from 1985 to 1996, attempted to test whether doses of antioxidant vitamins could prevent cancer in heavy smokers and other people at high risk. While the trial failed, the samples remained available in the CARET Biorepository.

In analyzing the samples provided by CARET, Fiehn and his team identified a molecule, called diacetylspermine, which was nearly doubled in serum collected from patients up to 6 months before their formal diagnosis of lung cancer. The researchers then combined diacetylspermine with another biomarker of lung cancer called pro-surfactant protein B and tested for both markers in another set of samples collected from CARET patients months before they developed cancer.

“Individually, the markers were about 70% predictive but in combination, that rose to 80%,” Fiehn said. Put simply, 80% of people with early-stage cancer could be correctly diagnosed by the combined test. If the double biomarker were in use as a clinical test, patients could then be referred for a low-dose CT scan to confirm the presence of lung cancer.

The study introduces the possibility of a new diagnostic measure for physicians to consider when presented with cases of possible lung cancer. Patients can now be treated earlier than ever before, increasing the likelihood of survival compared with traditional methods of lung cancer detection.