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Lung cancer is one of the leading causes of cancer death, but targeted therapy is improving survival rates

“Today the average survival is about 12-14 months,” says Timothy F. Burns, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of medicine, division of hematology-oncology at the University of Pittsburgh. 

He says the outlook is improving, thanks to enhanced testing and targeted therapies. 

Transforming treatment 

Historically, lung cancer has had limited treatment options. Recently, researchers have identified multiple oncogenes, or changes in normal genes, that lead to abnormal cell growth associated with cancer. Targeted therapies, which target the specific oncogenic driver of the cancer growth, have changed the face of lung cancer over the last decade.  

“Precision medicine is such an elegant and tailored approach, where identifying the cause of the cancer, and targeting that vulnerability in a very specific way, can lead to enhanced patient outcomes,” says Philina Lee, vice president of marketing and U.S. precision medicine at Blueprint Medicines.

Multiple studies show improved outcomes of precision therapy over traditional chemotherapy.  Targeted therapies are increasing the life expectancy trajectory for lung cancer patients.   

Targeted therapies 

The only way to know if a targeted therapy could potentially work is to know what’s driving the cancer. Doctors can order comprehensive biomarker testing like next-generation sequencing (NGS), testing for a number of biomarkers at once.

“When someone walks in my clinic, about 30-35 percent are going to have a targetable biomarker, so I can give them an FDA-approved oral, targeted therapy versus standard chemotherapy,” says Dr. Burns. “And that percentage continues to grow over time as new targeted therapies are discovered.”

Results from biomarker testing can take two-or-more weeks, but with several targetable biomarkers with approved treatments, it is worth the wait to confirm treatment.

“You absolutely need to wait for your full complete biomarker testing results before deciding on your treatment,” says Nikki Martin, director of precision medicine initiatives at LUNGevity Foundation, a lung cancer nonprofit.

She says the testing is like a fingerprint of an individual’s cancer and could potentially match them to a personalized therapy.

Lee is optimistic about the next 5-10 years, she says, “The increasing number of new targeted therapies, continual discovery of new biomarkers, and progress towards making comprehensive biomarker testing a standard practice will transform how we can select these purpose-built therapies for patients with lung cancer.”

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