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Potential breakthrough for lung cancer

November 6, 2008 12:00:00 AM PST
Lung cancer kills more people than any other kind of cancer. Drugs currently available only extend survival by a few months. Now a new weapon shows promise in helping patients fight for survival.It's just a few steps from her back door, but it's where lung cancer patient Cookie McNamara escapes reality. Cookie's reality means struggling with lung cancer.

"Lung cancer is a death sentence," said Cookie.

Eighty-five-percent of people diagnosed with lung cancer die. Patients in the late stages of the disease have less than a 50 percent chance of living through the next year.

Cookie's odds could be changing. She's one of the first to take part in a phase three trial for a lung cancer vaccine.

"I hope it would be a huge turning point, because we are overdue for a breakthrough in lung cancer management -- way overdue." said medical oncologist Lyudmila Bazhenova, MD.

Cancer cells emit a protein called TGF beta, which makes them invisible to the immune system. The vaccine works by revealing the cancer cells to the rest of the body. The immune system can see them and attack.

"This is kind of more of [what] I would call the designer drug, to design to specifically target those cancer cells and not really hit those healthy cells," said Dr. Bazhenova.

Early results show more than 60 percent of people who had the vaccine lived at least another year. Normally, only 30 percent of patients survive past the first year following chemotherapy, and more than 40 percent lived two years.

"If it doesn't help me, it's sure going to help other people," said Cookie.

Cookie stays strong by thinking about the impact she's making on medicine.

"I just think it's really, really exciting," said Cookie.

After several months of injections, she feels good and is determined to blaze the trail that leads to a cure.

Web Extra Information:

BACKGROUND:

Lung cancer is one of the most common cancers, accounting for approximately 15 percent of all cancer diagnoses and 29 percent of all cancer deaths. In 2008, an estimated 215,020 people will find out they have the disease and 161,840 will die from it. Most of the time, the lung cancer is found in older individuals because it can take years to develop. For this reason, only 15 percent of patients survive. The average age of diagnosis is 69 years old. Lung cancer is most often attributed to cigarette smoking, but it can also be due to exposure to asbestos, radon, environmental factors or secondhand smoke. Other times, it's due to a person's genes. Lung cancer occurs when abnormal cells in one or both lungs grow uncontrollably and obstruct normal functioning of the organ; to provide the body with oxygenated blood. The two main types of lung cancer are non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and small cell lung cancer (SCLC). Non-small cell cancer occurs most frequently, accounting for 80 percent of diagnoses. The four types of NSCLC include the following:

  • Squamous cell carcinoma: Found in the lining of the bronchial tubes, it's the most common type of NSCLC and is the most common type of lung cancer in men.
  • Adenocarcinoma: The most common type of lung cancer in women and among nonsmokers. It affects the glands of the lungs that produce mucus.
  • Bronchioalveolar carcinoma: A rare type of adenocarcinoma.
  • Large-cell undifferentiated carcinoma: A rapid-growing cancer that forms near the outer edges of the lungs.

These four types are grouped together because they are treated the same way. Small cell lung cancer is different in that it grows rapidly and can spread quickly throughout the body. It is almost always caused by cigarette smoking and responds well to chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

VACCINE PROTECTION:

A novel cancer vaccine called Lucanix is being tested in patients with non-small cell lung cancer who have completed several rounds of chemotherapy. The goal is to improve patient survival by programming the body to fight off any remaining cancer cells. It contains lung cancer cells that have been genetically modified so they don't produce the protein TGF-beta, which suppresses the immune system. "Every day, every person develops cancer cells in their body and it's a job of the immune system to find those cancer cells, catch them and kill them; but something happens to your immune system where it fails to do so," Lyudmila Bazhenova, M.D., a medical oncologist and hematologist at the University of California, San Diego Morse Cancer Center, explained to Ivanhoe. The modified cells are injected into a patient with the hope that their body's immune system starts killing them and then continues to kill the other cancer cells already in the body.

In a phase II clinical study, the one-year survival rate of patients was 61 percent and the two-year survival rate was 41 percent. Normally, only 30 percent of patients survive past the first year after chemotherapy. Experts say the drug has virtually no side effects. A phase III clinical trial is currently taking place and is involving 700 patients at about 90 centers across the world. Patients are given injections once a month for 18 months, followed by two quarterly injections.


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