For years, surgery has been the only curative treatment for lung cancer. But new drugs and treatment methods discovered through oncology clinical trials – like those we offer at UT Southwestern – are effective in treating a growing number of lung cancer patients with less severe side effects.
Two of these new treatment methods are targeted therapy and immunotherapy.
Cancer occurs because of mutations in a cell’s DNA. Researchers are learning to make drugs that seek to destroy cells with those very specific mutations – a treatment called targeted therapy.
Healthy cells do not carry the specific mutations that cancer cells do. That means targeted therapy destroys fewer healthy cells, which in turn causes fewer side effects than chemotherapy or radiation.
The tricky part is that not all tumors have the same mutations. Currently, we can identify the mutations that likely cause lung cancer in about 50 percent of our patients. However, we have FDA-approved, targeted drugs that will work for only about half of those patients. Researchers are actively looking to make drugs for the remaining half by participating in collaborative clinical trials at academic research centers across the country.
We’re identifying more and more mutations all the time. The more mutations we identify, the more lung cancer drugs we can create to target those specific mutations. It’s pretty exciting!
Immunotherapy uses certain parts of your immune system to fight lung cancer. Sometimes called biotherapy or biologic therapy, immunotherapy “unleashes the dogs” – i.e., it allows your immune system to see the cancer cells as foreign enemies so that it can attack them. Because only the cancer cells are attacked, these treatments have side effects different from standard chemotherapy and are generally more tolerable.
Right now, one approved drug we use at UT Southwestern is able to treat about 10 percent of our lung cancer patients. But with all of the exciting data coming out of cancer clinical trials in the United States, we expect that same drug will be approved to treat about 50 percent of our patients within the next year.
Chemotherapy and radiation therapy
Chemotherapy is still the most prescribed treatment option for cancer. I don’t think targeted therapy or immunotherapy will fully replace chemotherapy in the near future, but they are alternative treatments for some patients.
Advances in radiation therapy are also extremely promising, especially in the technology used in stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT). The problem with SBRT for lung cancer therapy is that it is more of a local, highly pinpointed treatment – physicians can administer it only where they can aim it. Many lung cancer patients – especially late-stage patients – have more than one or two spots of cancer, so they need a more systemic treatment like chemotherapy, immunotherapy, or targeted therapy.
It’s important to remember that even though advanced treatments are effective and can cause dramatic improvements for many months, none of them will cure the disease – yet. At some point, the cancer figures out a way around treatment because its cells are constantly mutating. But the idea is that the more treatment options we have, the more treatments we can give, and the better the success rates will be for our patients.
How to help yourself before any cancer treatments
Many of my lung cancer patients are current or former smokers. The first thing to do to improve your chances for a successful lung cancer outcome is to quit smoking. Smoking causes not only lung cancer but also other diseases like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema, and cancer in other organs.
The problem is that it can be very difficult to quit. Notice that I said difficult – not impossible.
If you are a smoker and you want to quit, call our Cancer Answer Line at 214-736-9022 to learn about our nicotine cessation programs. As hard as it is to quit, going through an illness such as lung cancer is much, much harder.