Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death worldwide and the third most common cancer type in the United States.
The disease is often treatable when diagnosed in its early stages. So, experts are constantly working on new ways to detect lung cancer as early as possible so that people can receive prompt treatment.
While anyone can develop lung cancer, some risk factors such as smoking and exposure to second-hand smoke increase a person’s risk.
The treatment for lung cancer will depend on the type of lung cancer and the stage of the disease when detected. Doctors may utilize chemotherapy, surgery, immunotherapy, and radiation as part of treatment.
Dr. William Dahut, the chief scientific officer of the American Cancer Society, explained to Medical News Today:
“Lung cancer is by far the leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S. Although the number of deaths per year is decreasing (due to decreased tobacco use, C.T. screening, and targeted therapies), it remains a very serious medical problem. Outcomes are much better if lung cancer is detected earlier.”
Dr. Jorge Gomez, a medical expert with the American Lung Association, further noted to MNT:
“Lung cancer is a disease that can often be cured in the early stages but becomes incurable once [the] cancer has spread. It is important to diagnose lung cancer before it spreads to increase the likelihood of a cure. Early detection initiatives such as C.T. screening are critical in finding small cancers before they spread.”
A recent study published in Nature Communications focuses on a new method for detecting lung cancer at the cellular level, which could lead to earlier and more effective treatments.
Researchers say they examined a method to detect cancer at a more microscopic level than a typical biopsy and tissue analysis, specifically in lung cancer nodules. Their research used mice models, human tissue samples, and cell cultures.
The study authors noted the following to MNT:
“This study demonstrated the potential for high diagnostic accuracy when combining a cancer-targeted molecular imaging agent with a real-time needle-based confocal laser endomicroscopy system to assess malignancy in small, difficult-to-diagnose lung nodules.”
They reported that the method could differentiate between healthy cells and cancerous cells at the single-cell level. They also found that it could detect cancerous cells in tumors less than two centimeters wide.
The detection method is beneficial for lung cancer because the lung cancer tissue often has non-cancerous components that can hide detection.
The study authors elaborated to MNT how it is difficult to detect lung cancer via biopsy:
“The diagnostic yield of lung nodule biopsies is inherently low, which can present a challenge for clinicians to differentiate between benign and cancerous nodules…”
Dahut was optimistic about this more effective method of detection:
“C.T. screening for lung cancer in patients with a smoking history improves outcomes significantly. However, abnormalities on C.T. are often non-specific and difficult to biopsy. Techniques such as described in this paper have the potential to improve the diagnostic accuracy and, since the results are in real-time, decrease the need for more than one biopsy due to insufficient diagnostic material.”
While demonstrating a potentially effective cancer detection method, researchers noted their study has several limitations.
First of all, further testing should be done during typical patient biopsies because it is unclear how aspects of the human body would impact the method’s effectiveness.
The method is limited due to components of its nature, and the analysis did include some false positives.
Finally, the technique may not be effective on all tumor types. The study authors explained to MNT potential areas for further research:
“Additional studies exploring how cancer-targeted agents can be used to achieve better diagnostic outcomes could have a meaningful impact on patient care.”
Researchers noted that the technology could be utilized with other types of cancer detection.
Gomez further noted that the method still requires the use of C.T. scans, so its importance comes down to differentiating between cancerous and non-cancerous tumors:
“This is an interesting study that combines confocal laser endomicroscopy, a method of visualizing the characteristics of cells before removing them from the organ, with a dye that targets certain malignant cells. This improves the likelihood of identifying abnormalities found on traditional imaging as benign or malignant. While this may, in the future, improve our ability to treat early lung cancer and not treat benign nodules, it does not aid in finding the cancers sooner. The lung nodules that would be studied by this method must still be found through traditional C.T. screening, the most important method of early detection for lung cancer.”