Doctors are employing a new strategy in treating lung cancer; attacking the genes, shrinking tumors, giving cancer patients a new chance to beat the sickness.
Lung cancer is the number one cancer killer in America, and you don’t even need to pick up a cigarette to get it. A simple mutation in your genes could get the ball rolling, nicotine or not. “I had a dry cough that I could never get rid of,” Michael McDill told reporters. “You have a life, you have a family and you don’t expect that at all at that age.” McDill was 36-years-old when he got the devastating news. “They said stage 4 lung cancer,” he said.
He’d never smoked a day in his life, but a genetic mutation called Anaplastic lymphoma kinase (ALK) caused a cancerous tumor. This gene is found in forms of lung cancer that affect thousands of non-smokers. Doctors hit the tumor with 10 rounds of chemo and heavy radiation. The treatments didn’t work, but a clinical trial gave McDill new hope.
“We are testing 10 different genes with 38 different mutations,” Leora Horn, M.D., MSc, FRCPC, an assistant professor of medicine and clinical director of the thoracic oncology program at Vanderbilt University, said. Doctors are able to pinpoint the gene mutation and use drugs designed specifically for carriers of the genetic anomaly. “The goal is to be able to find an agent that can block it and prevent the growth of that cancer,” Dr. Horn said.
For McDill, Dr. Horn believes the newly FDA approved Crizotinib will help him. “It’s targeting the tumor and blocking signaling in the tumor and when you block the signaling in the tumor is like you’re cutting off a wire,” Dr. Horn explained. An early clinical trial saw more than 57% of patients recover as tumors shrank after two months of the drug being in their systems. “In 60% of patients, they will have more than 30% of shrinkage of their tumor,” Dr. Horn said.
She says the drug is still new and needs to be tested more, but McDill is benefiting from it now. He’s not cured, but tests show no trace of the disease. He’s able to live his life at its current quality, which he is amenable to. “Live, laugh, love,” he said.
The drug isn’t limited to lung cancer therapy. It is being used by doctors to test genes in melanoma, breast cancer, and colon cancer detection. Crizotinib is expensive; it has only been approved in the U.S. and costs a steep $10k a month. Common side-effects include nausea, diarrhea, and some minor vision problems.