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HealthWatch: UCSF Molecular Research May Shed Light On Cancer Survival

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS 5) - Scientists from the University of California, San Francisco, Kaiser Permanente, and China have teamed up to study a molecular test that could give more patients a chance to be cured of lung cancer.

Lung cancer is the deadliest form of cancer in the U.S. and in the world. Every year, 150,000 Americans die from the disease.

Most cases of lung cancer are linked to cigarette smoke. But asbestos, chemicals, environmental factors and genetics also play a role. Early diagnosis is key - but that's not enough with lung cancer. Almost half of all people with early stage lung cancer already have microscopic, metastatic disease - Hidden clumps of cancer cells that we cannot image even with our best tools of CT scanning, PET scanning or brain MRIs.

"35 to even 40, 50% of these patients will recur with their cancer, and tragically, when patients recur from lung cancer they die from it," said Dr. David Jablons, Chief of the Division of Thoracic Surgery at UCSF.

That's where a new molecular test to assess risk could change things.

Dr. Jablons and an international team of researchers studied a molecular assay of 14 different genes in more than 1500 patients. Their findings, published in The Lancet, show the molecular test outperforms standard tests used today.

According to Jablons, "We were able to corroborate the same finding, that the 14 genes were prognostic for either low, intermediate or high risk chance of recurrence and death."

He said today, doctors are forced to watch and wait to see if a patient with early stage lung cancer has been cured by surgery alone. Now, doctors can identify who is most at risk and therefore in need of additional treatment.

"We would give the chemotherapy when it would be most likely to be most effective, and that hopefully this would translate into increased chance of cure, not just delay of recurrence, but cure for those patients," said Jablons.

And he said understanding the biology of cancer and individualizing care will transform cancer treatment across the board.

"We will assess a cancer not even organ specific any more pancreatic, breast or lung or colon, we will just know because of the molecular pathways, we will know by gene expression and ratios of gene expression, what potential biology and chance of occult microscopic disease may be and then how best to treat the patient and how best to understand what their prognosis is," said Dr. Jablons.

Editor's note: Dr. Kim Mulvihill's son Michael is a medical student working in Dr. Jablons' lab, and is one of the authors of the study.

(Copyright 2012 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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