Lung cancer, Sherlock Holmes and piano

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Image of lung cancer

When we think of lung cancer we typically tend to think it’s the end result of years of smoking cigarettes. But, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 10 and 20 percent of cases of lung cancer (20,000 to 40,000 cases a year) happen to non-smokers, people who have either never smoked or smoked fewer than 100 cigarettes in their life. Now researchers have found that there are different genetic types of cancer for smokers and non-smokers, and that might mean the need for different kinds of treatment.

A team at the National Cancer Institute did whole genome sequencing on tumors from 232 never-smokers who had lung cancer. In an interview with STATnews, researcher Maria Teresa Landi said they called their research the Sherlock-Lung study, after the famous fictional pipe-smoking detective Sherlock Holmes. “We used a detective approach. By looking at the genome of the tumor, we use the changes in the tumors as a footprint to follow to infer the causes of the disease.”

They also got quite creative in naming the three different genetic subtypes they found. Instead of giving them the usual dry scientific names, they called them piano, mezzo-forte and forte; musical terms for soft, medium and loud.

Half of the tumors in the non-smokers were in the piano group. These were slow growing with few mutations. The median latency period for these (the time between being exposed to something and being diagnosed) was nine years. The mezzo-forte group made up about one third of the cases. Their cancers were more aggressive with a latency of around 14 weeks. The forte group were the most aggressive, and the ones that most closely resembled smokers’ cancer, with a latency period of just one month.

So, what is the role of stem cells in this research? Well, in the study, published in the journal Nature Genetics the team found that the piano subtype seemed to be connected to genes that help regulate stem cells. That complicates things because it means that the standard treatments for lung cancer that work for the mezzo-forte and forte varieties, won’t work for the piano subtype.

“If this is true, it changes a lot of things in the way we should think of tumorigenesis,” Dr. Landi said.

With that in mind, and because early-detection can often be crucial in treating cancer, what can non-smokers do to find out if they are at risk of developing lung cancer? Well, right now there are no easy answers. For example, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force does not recommend screening for people who have never smoked because regular CT scans could actually increase an otherwise healthy individual’s risk of developing cancer.

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