MELBOURNE doctors have found a lung cancer treatment that could turn a common form of the highly lethal disease into a manageable condition.

In what is being labelled the biggest breakthrough in lung cancer to date, cancer experts at St Vincent’s Hospital yesterday said they had found a common gene in squamous cell lung cancers that makes the cells proliferate and spread through the body.

Furthermore, the researchers have identified two drugs that have been shown to target the gene (FGFR1) in mice, killing the cells in the process.

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The team aim to start testing the drugs on Victorian patients with squamous cell lung tumours next year and hope other hospitals around the world will join them to accelerate the testing process. If the trials show the drugs are safe and effective, the treatment could be available to patients in three to five years.

Associate Professor Gavin Wright, director of surgical oncology at St Vincent’s, said an eight-year analysis of about 1000 tumours had revealed that roughly one-fifth of people with squamous cell lung cancer had the problematic FGFR1 gene.

He said laboratory models of the disease had shown that the drugs should destroy the tumours in about 80 per cent of these people.

”In many cases, the tumours should completely disappear,” he said. ”The drugs can also stop the tumours growing and make them smaller. That effect could last for many years.

”This is a significant advance … It could transform this often lethal form of lung cancer into a more manageable chronic disease like diabetes,” he said.

In more positive news, Professor Wright said he expected the drugs to come in the form of tablets with low-level side effects, such as a rash.

This would be better than other cancer treatments such as chemotherapy, he said, which often lead to problems including hair loss, diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting.

”That would mean a significant advance for both quality of life as well as length of life,” he said.

The work to identify the gene was done with the help of researchers at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, and money raised by Melbourne father Russell O’Toole, whose wife Sandy O’Toole died of lung cancer last year.

Chief executive of the Cancer Council Australia, Ian Olver, yesterday praised the finding, which was reported in Science Translational Medicine this week, saying treatments for lung cancer were desperately needed.

He said that if the drugs work as expected they could be likened to the value of the drug herceptin, which has provided an effective treatment for thousands of women with HER2-positive breast cancer. This aggressive form of breast cancer accounts for about one quarter of all breast cancers.

”This is a very significant breakthrough,” he said.

Squamous cell is the second most common type of lung cancer, after adenocarcinoma, and is usually associated with a history of smoking.

Each year, about 10,000 people in Australia are diagnosed with lung cancer. About 35 per cent of these people have squamous cell cancers. Only about 10 per cent of lung cancer patients survive the disease.

An Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report published this week showed that while survival rates had improved for all cancers, the only exception was lung cancer in women, for which the death rate rose by 56 per cent from 1982 to 2007.

Dr Marie-Liesse Asselin-Labat, a scientist based in the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research’s stem cell and cancer unit, said the finding could improve survival rates for thousands of people around the world.

”It’s very exciting work,” she said.

Sourced & published by Henry Sapiecha

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