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New Treatment Targets Gene in Difficult Lung Cancers

By targeting specific genes, cancer researchers have made promising developments in the battle to shrink tumors. A study released today reveals a new treatment may effectively target a gene involved in a difficult type of lung cancer.

The results show the new treatment killed cancer cells in lab dishes and shrank tumors in mice. The drug works by targeting a gene found in certain types of lung cancer that are often resistant to current drug treatments. Tumors with this gene account for roughly 3 to 5 percent of lung cancer cases.

This genetic change may also be found in cervical and head and neck cancers, so the treatment may have multiple uses, researchers said.

"This genetic lesion represents the first 'druggable' target in this subgroup of patients," said study researcher Dr. Martin Sos, of the Max-Planck-Institute for Neurological Research in Germany. Inhibitors of this gene are already being tested, and might improve the outcomes for some patients with squamous cell lung cancer, he said.

FGFR1, the gene targeted by the new treatment, is involved in the growth of some squamous cell lung cancers, a type often found in smokers. Testing the new drug, known as PD173074, the researchers found it shrank tumors and in some cases killed cancer cells.

FGFR1 belongs  to a family of genes, some of which are targeted by other treatments. For example, Tarceva, which is used to treat non-small cell lung cancer, targets one of these genes. While these drugs tend to have fewer side effects than conventional chemotherapy, which aims at killing all rapidly dividing cells in the body, they still bring some unpleasantness.

But the new study has others in the cancer treatment community optimistic.

Dr. David Gandara, associate director for clinical research at the University of California, Davis Cancer Center, said his research group is developing clinical trials for drugs that target FGFR1, and the new study is likely to impact how he researches these drugs.

"They haven't been specifically for this type of lung cancer, but I think, after seeing this article, were going to make sure we include these patients in the trial design," he said.

Gandara also said tests should probably be done on squamous cell cancers that occur in other parts of the body, to see if this treatment may be effective there.

"It is possible, although we don't know it from this article, that maybe this is something present in a variety of squamous cell cancers," he said.

Treatment of the inhibitor for FGFR1 is moving toward tests in human patients, but it is unclear how soon the treatment will become available.

"First clinical trials involving FGFR inhibitors are ongoing," Sos said. In another type of lung cancer, called adenocarcinoma, finding genes to target helped to shorten the time to drug approval, he said. "But it is difficult to predict how fast this development will be for FGFR inhibitors in squamous cell lung cancer patients."

While initial results in other targeted cancer treatments have been promising, they have not yielded cures, so researchers are cautious of being overly optimistic.

"We are still far away from curing cancer, but the identification of FGFR1-amplification in squamous cell lung cancer adds to the puzzle that the cancer genomics community is putting together in order to prolong survival of genetically defined cancer subgroups," Sos said.

While targeting specific genes in cancer has yielded quick results when it comes to moving from early studies to clinical trials, the authors of the study emphasized caution about how useful their results will be.

"The final question [of] whether these patients will benefit from such a treatment may be given only after the analysis of the first trials in lung cancer patients," Sos said.

The study was published today (Dec. 15) in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

Pass it on: Researchers have found a new gene to target in treatments for a difficult type of lung cancer.

This article was provided by MyHealthNewsDaily, a sister site to LiveScience.

Joe Brownstein is a contributing writer to Live Science, where he covers medicine, biology and technology topics. He has a Master of Science and Medical Journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts in creative writing and natural sciences from Johns Hopkins University.