A new gene target for aggressive lung cancer could save lives by creating better treatments

This discovery can also help researchers conduct earlier screenings.
Brittney Grimes

Scientists at Northwestern University have identified a new gene that is responsible for triggering an aggressive subtype of small-cell lung cancer. The research describes in detail this subtype and what can be done to further advance treatment options for this disease.

The study is published in the journal Science Advances.

The subtype

The aggressive subtype of this cancer is called P subtype, and currently has no cure or effective treatment. Many patients and their families learn, unfortunately, that there are limited treatment options for small-cell lung cancer. “This type of cancer is resistant to a lot of drugs and not many studies focus on it,” said Lu Wang, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “By identifying this important gene, we now have a very good drug target to work with."

Lack of treatment options

Wang mentioned the difficulty in explaining the lack of effective treatment for this specific cancer. “It’s devastating to patients and their families,” Wang said. But this new gene target gives them hope.

The bigger issue is that treatment has remained unchanged for so many years. Many families rely mainly on chemotherapy for medical care. In doing so, oftentimes the patients develop a form of chemo-resistance, or a failure in response to the drug, causing the cancer to spread.

Wang stated that cancer drug resistance to small-cell lung cancer chemotherapy treatment could “impact the overall efficacy of the limited available treatment options, and leading to cancer reoccurrence.”

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Lung cancer statistics

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the United States, despite being the third most common cancer in the U.S. An estimated 131,880 lung cancer deaths are predicted for this year alone, according to the American Cancer Society.

Although there have been advancements in technology, medicine and improved screenings for lung cancer, it is still often diagnosed at late stages when there’s already prevalent tumor growth, making treatment options difficult. It’s so important, for this cancer and any other cancer, to catch it early on before tumors spread.

This fact is extremely important for those diagnosed with small-cell lung cancer, because it’s an “aggressive form of lung cancer diagnosed at late stages for 70% of cases,” Wang said.

Using CRISPR screening to discover and delete the gene

Researchers found a gene that is necessary for this tumor from lung cancer to survive and thrive. The team used genome-wide CRISPR screening to find the specific gene and identify it. Once Wang and his team were able to pinpoint the specific gene, they were able to delete it in small-cell lung cancer cells in vitro and in mice.

Creating a treatment to destroy the cancer cells

When these genes were removed, the cancer cells were not able to survive and died off. This study proves to be part of the preliminary process to create a drug that could possibly do the same, killing off the specific cancer cells. Researchers plan to develop a drug to disrupt the function of the gene to treat this subtype of lung cancer in patients.

The gene has been named POU2AF2 by the team, based on the innovative functions reported in this new research.

The hope for this study is to start catching this subtype of small-cell lung cancer at earlier stages and, eventually, find additional treatment options for this disease. An exciting step forward in curing lung cancer.

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