In a new study entitled “Sentinel” Circulating Tumor Cells Allow Early Diagnosis of Lung Cancer in Patients with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease“ published in Plos One, a team of scientists found circulating cancer cells in the circulatory system of patients’ months and years before they develop lung cancer. These new findings suggest to researchers that the signs of lung cancer may be detectable long before the disease takes root in the lungs, meaning that early diagnoses could be made, leading to better outcomes.
The team of researchers at Inserm/University of Nice evaluated patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), since these patients have an increased risk of developing lung cancer. Circulating tumor cells usually occur in the initial stages of carcinogenesis. The authors analyzed blood samples together with CT-scans from COPD patients without clinically-detectable lung cancer. The study included 245 patients – 168 patients with COPD and 77 without COPD (with 42 control smokers and 35 non-smoking healthy individuals).
The team detected circulating tumor cells in 3% of COPD patients (five patients), however, the CT scans from these patients did not reveal any nodules in the lungs. These were detected as a result of the patients’ annual surveillance CT scans, between one to four years after detection of the circulating tumor cells. The patients were immediately submitted to surgical resection of the nodules and, upon histopathological diagnosis, the diagnosis of lung cancer was confirmed. Monitoring these patients for one year after surgery revealed no tumor recurrence. The circulating tumor cells in COPD patients expressed markers in agreement with the tumor type they later developed.
Patients who were negative for circulating tumor cells, were negative for lung nodules during the annual monitoring.
The authors thus suggest that monitoring blood samples from high-risk patients, such as COPD patients, for “sentinel” is an efficient strategy to detect early lung cancer. Identifying lung cancer early could lead to higher cure rates and survival rates among the lung cancer patient population.