New treatment for lung cancer shows promise

Effect on one patient nothing short of stunning

Mug of Dr. Ross Camidge



Once a frightening monolith of a disease, lung cancer slowly is being recognized as not a single ailment, but several.

With the finding that lung cancer isn’t a single disease, it also turns out some varieties are more treatable than others.

Such is the case with one variety of lung cancer that turns out to be far more treatable — though not curable — than others.

Investigators don’t know how many of the nation’s lung cancer cases are susceptible to the treatment, but lung cancer in all its forms remains the most lethal of all cancers, churning out 200,000 new cases a year and killing 170,000 people annually.

It is “the single biggest killer, bar none,” of all the cancers, said Dr. Ross Camidge of the University of Colorado Cancer Center in Aurora, one of five centers in the world involved in the research.

Lung cancer has long been a disease of great interest on the Western Slope, dating to when Dr. Geno Saccomanno was working with uranium miners to find early ways of detecting cancer by testing sputum from their lungs.

The incidence of lung cancer in Mesa, Rio Blanco and Montrose counties is among the highest in Colorado, according to the National Cancer Institute. In Mesa County, the incidence of lung cancer is rising, while it’s falling statewide.

Camidge and researchers from around the globe hit on the treatment for one lung-cancer variety when they looked at the work of researchers in Japan, who had noticed a chromosomal abnormality in 4 percent of the lung cancers they were studying.

Pfizer, it happened, was looking at the same chromosome.

In what Camidge termed a “true story of serendipity,” the efforts of researchers combined to find a way to turn off the abnormality associated with the lung cancer that the Japanese had noticed.

The effect on a Fort Morgan woman who was suffering from Stage 4 nonsmoker’s lung cancer was nothing short of stunning, Camidge said.

Ila Hegland was coughing up a cup of blood every morning after battling the disease for nine years with the help of chemotherapy and radiation.

Soon after Hegland began taking tablets administered in the worldwide study involving 23 patients, her cancer shrunk dramatically, Camidge said, defying odds that say the five-year survival rate for patients with Stage 3 or Stage 4 lung cancer is 12 percent.

More than half the people who have been treated with what is called the alk inhibitor, referring to the alk gene, experienced some improvement, and more than half saw dramatic shrinkages in their tumors, Camidge said.

Results of the study of the alk inhibitor were announced within the past two weeks at the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

Improvements have been dramatic enough that Pfizer and the academic researchers anticipate early licensing of the alk-inhibiting drug. That could happen in as few as three years, Camidge said.

As encouraging as the development of the alk inhibitor is, the treatment is far from being a cure.

“It’s not a cure, it’s a control,” he said.

People who have the disease still could need chemotherapy and radiation to destroy the cancer, he said.

It’s also unclear exactly how many lung cancers can be treated by the inhibitor.

The cancer related to the alk gene and another mutation are more common in people with no smoking history, he said.

One possible explanation for the disease is radon exposure, but too little information is available to link to particular geographical regions, Camidge said.

The testing of the tumors is one option to be considered as part of a second opinion,
Camidge said. If appropriate, the tumor test done as part of the study is free, but the doctor visit and other costs are borne by insurance.

The main cancer center number is 720-848-0300.

As promising as the treatment is, one of the major developments could be the different look the study has given lung cancer, Camidge said.

“Lung cancer is a huge problem, and it seems like one disease” that is aggressive, unresponsive to treatment and whose victims have poor prognoses, Camidge said.

It’s not one disease, though, but perhaps several smaller ones.

“It’s not quite as scary when you’re dealing with a lot of little things,” he said, “instead of one big one.”


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