Posted by Neharika Sabharwal on April 08, 2010

Researchers have discovered a new screening technique that can identify specific genes in the airways of smokers whose activity rises prior to the development of lung cancer.

This method of diagnosis could be a step closer to a cure, or at least early detection of the killer disease that afflicts thousands.

Avrum Spira is a founder, board director, and scientific adviser of Allegro Diagnostics of Boston, the lead author of the study stated, "We think we've identified a gene activity signature in the airway that can identify smokers who are at risk for getting lung cancer.

"In addition, we think that the activity in this pathway can serve as a potential therapeutic target.”

Cell samples of 200 patients analyzed
The investigators analyzed cell samples taken from 200 patients in Boston and Salt Lake City who had some symptoms for lung disease.

For the purpose of the study, they collected cells from the windpipes using a tiny brush.

They then put them on a gene chip or microarray to identify which genes were active in the cells.

The researchers found that people with higher level P13K activity were more likely to be diagnosed with lung cancer as opposed to those with normal levels.

Andrea Bild of the University of Utah who was part of the study stated, "We found this certain pathway, PI3K, was turned on in patients that had lung cancer as opposed to patients that had other problems.”

P13K may predict lung cancer
In smokers who are afflicted by the ailment or are likely to develop lung cancer, a gene called P13K can be found in the windpipes but does not exist in smokers who will be spared from lung cancer.

This implies that the test can help detect cancer at the earliest stage or even before it exists without people having to endure unnecessary lung tests, the anxieties and the risks that come with them.

Spira stated, "These cells are like a canary in the coal mine. Even though lung cancer develops deep down in your lungs when you smoke, these cells can tell you whether you are on the way to developing lung cancer. It is sort of a window into the lung."

Need for more research
Although the idea that the lethal disease could be picked up before developing into a full blown cancer or even before occurring is exciting, experts feel there is need for more research.

Dr. Michael Thun, emeritus vice president of epidemiology at the American Cancer Society said, "It's an interesting and potentially important finding, but it's still a long way from being clear what its clinical application will end up being. These things need to be replicated.

"There needs to be a more thorough characterization of how consistently it is seen in different types of lung cancer. It is far from the total picture of the heterogeneity of lung cancer."

Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the study has been published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

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