More than 3,000 people in B.C. are diagnosed with lung cancer each year. It is the second most common cancer diagnosed in the province and is responsible for more deaths in Canada than breast, prostate and colon cancer combined.

The main reason lung cancer tends to have a poor prognosis is that the disease is commonly diagnosed at a later stage due to few symptoms early on. In addition, the drugs currently used to treat advanced lung tumours are not effective in the long term and drug resistance is common.

Although most cases of lung cancer are associated with smoking, about 25 per cent occur in patients who have never smoked. BC Cancer researchers have proven that lung cancer found in people who have never smoked is a completely distinct disease from that seen in smokers.

Research has also shown that lung cancer screening among high-risk individuals can reduce cancer mortality by 20 per cent. Dr. Stephen Lam and his team at BC Cancer have developed a risk prediction model based on computer-generated data as part of an ongoing effort to make screening for lung cancer patients practical and affordable.

Lab looks at novel ways to attack cancer drivers

A portion of funds from the BC Cancer Foundation’s 2013 Inspiration Gala helped establish Dr. Will Lockwood’s research lab at BC Cancer. The lab has a strong focus on understanding the molecular drivers of lung cancer and using that information to identify new and effective drugs for treatment.

Dr. Lockwood’s team has made significant progress in several key areas:

  • They uncovered a new gene that is disrupted in non-smoker lung cancers and are investigating whether aberrations in this gene can be used to identify people at a high risk of developing the disease.
  • They discovered a small molecule inhibitor that selectively kills lung cancer while sparing healthy cells and are studying how this drug works so they can identify patients most likely to respond to it.
  • The team developed a combination therapy using drugs that target both mutated genes and their signaling components, and identified a paradigm-shifting strategy to kill lung cancer cells by over-stimulating (as opposed to inhibiting) cancer-causing pathways.
  • They published nine research papers in prestigious medical journals, including Molecular Oncology, Journal of Pathology, Journal of Experimental Medicine and eLIFE.

Dr. Lockwood’s team is exploring the future of lung cancer research therapies, which will include harnessing the power of the immune system to attack tumours, developing novel methods of early detection, and innovating new ways to reduce lung cancer cases.

Funding supports data that secures significant grants

Preliminary data from research supported by the BC Cancer Foundation is critical to securing external grants. Dr. Lockwood has been very successful in using that early data to leverage additional funding, including: 

  • $704,000 over five years from the Canadian Institute of Health Research to study how cancer cells evade destruction by the immune system and develop ways to reactivate the body’s natural defences;
  • $764,500 from the Canadian Institute of Health Research for a five-year project developing therapeutic strategies for lung cancer;
  • $300,000 New Investigator Award over five years from the Canadian Institute of Health Research and the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research; and
  • $450,000 over three years from the Terry Fox Research Institute to determine and counteract the potential adverse effects of radiation from repeated CT scanning.

In addition to Dr. Lockwood work, Drs. Cheryl Ho and Nevin Murray are leading multiple clinical trials to assess new treatment options for lung cancer patients.

And BC Cancer oncologist Dr. Janessa Laskin, clinical lead for the Personalized Onco-Genomics (POG) Program, has enrolled a number of lung cancer patients to try to identify potential targets within their cancer’s DNA and RNA with an aim to match them with potential treatment options. 

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