Michael McDill was just 36 years old when he got life-changing news. He found out he had stage four lung cancer.
"I had a dry cough that I could never get rid of," he said. "You have a life, you have a family, you don't expect that at all at that age."
The model airplane collector never smoked a day in his life, but a specific genetic mutation called Anaplastic Lymphoma Kinase caused a cancerous tumor to grow.
The gene is found in forms of lung cancer affecting thousands of non-smokers. Doctors attacked it with 10 rounds of chemo and heavy radiation. The treatments didn't work, but a clinical trial gave McDill hope.
Doctors pinpoint specific gene mutations and select a drug designed specifically for carriers of that mutation.
"The goal is to find an agent that can block it and prevent the growth of that cancer," said Dr. Leora Horn, clinical director of the thoracic oncology program at Vanderbilt University.
In McDill's case, Horn believes the answer is in the newly FDA-approved drug Crizotinib.
"It's targeting the tumor and blocking signaling within the tumor, and so when you block the signaling within the tumor it's kind of like you're cutting off a wire," Horn said.
In an early clinical trial, more than 57 percent of patients saw their tumors shrink after two months on the drug.
Horn says the therapy is still fairly new, and larger trials are under way to test the drug's efficacy.
As for McDill, after a year on the drug, his scans show no traces of the disease. While the drug won't cure him, it's helping him control his cancer and maintain his quality of life.
Besides lung cancer, doctors are now using the same approach to test genes in melanoma, breast cancer and colon cancer. The most common side effects for Crizotinib are nausea, diarrhea and minor vision problems.