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Lung cancer treatment helps patients with abnormal ALK gene

A new drug is helping people with a certain type of lung cancer live longer without the harmful side effects of chemo.
October 12, 2013 12:00:00 AM PDT
There are few treatment options when it comes to getting rid of lung cancer. The most common course is to operate, then follow up with radiation and chemotherapy. Now, a new drug is helping people with a certain type of lung cancer live longer without the harmful side effects of chemo.

Justin Perry couldn't believe the news.

"I'm active, non-smoker, healthy," Perry said.

Despite all that, doctors diagnosed Perry with late-stage lung cancer.

Perry thought he would be facing chemotherapy, but when doctors tested his lung cancer tissue, they realized he was among 3 percent of patients with an abnormal ALK gene.

"A genetic alteration happens because a piece of chromosome has switched over on its side," explained Dr. Pasi Janne with the Dana Farber Cancer Institute.

That alteration made Perry a candidate for a targeted drug therapy trial. Instead of chemotherapy at the hospital, Perry took the more targeted therapy of ALK inhibitor pills at home.

"It doesn't make you lose your hair. It doesn't make you lose weight," said Janne.

Studies show that people with the ALK mutation may have a response rate of over 50 percent, compared to 10 percent with chemo. Perry says taking four to five pills a day outweigh daily or weekly chemo treatments.

"The first week, I was already noticing a difference," said Perry.

In just two months, the ALK inhibitor decreased most of the tumors in Perry's lungs, allowing him to breathe easier, knowing neither cancer nor chemo will get the best of him.

Not all lung cancer patients are eligible for this treatment. Patients with the abnormal gene ALK are the only 3 percent of patients who will receive a response.

Many patients in the trial say they've noticed an almost immediate response from the medication. The research is taking place at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute.


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