University professor aims to change lung cancer detection process

The new method could reduce lung cancer deaths of smokers by 20 percent.

by Elizabeth Ryan

Needles, tissue samples and sometimes even surgery make detecting cancers an invasive and painful process. These procedures can save lives by finding cancers in the early stages but can also be risky, expensive and require hospitalization.

University of Minnesota professor Timothy Church  and the National Lung Screening Trial research team aim to discover whether lung cancer screening procedures are worth the drawbacks for longtime smokers.

A nine-year study on more than 53,400 smokers showed spiral CT scan screening resulted in 20 percent fewer deaths than the traditional chest X-ray screening.

Spiral CT scans take detailed pictures inside the body using a combination of computers and X-rays, while a chest X-ray uses radiation to create pictures of the inside of a person’s chest.

The research team published their latest findings in the New England Journal of Medicine on May 23.

“Obviously, we’d like to reduce it by 100 percent,” Church said. “But one of the questions is, ‘Is a 20 percent reduction worth all of those downsides?’”

These results are in response to the American Cancer Society’s 2010  statement that further analysis was needed before any recommendations could be made.

The study began in 2002  at 33 medical centers in the U.S.

Church was the principal investigator at the Minnesota center, the largest center in the study with more than 10 percent of total participants.

Lou Harvin, American Cancer Society spokesman,  said a statement will be released “in the near future” on whether a national recommendation will be made now that the study has been updated.

Church said as the process for creating a recommendation unfolds, the next step for researchers is to do a cost-effectiveness analysis, weighing the pros and cons of procedures.

“There’s a lot of ways we could spend our money to improve health, and so we need to know, ‘What are we paying for?’” Church said. “We’ll know whether we should be spending it on something like screening for lung cancer or trying to prevent heart disease.”

Bruce Alexander, environmental health sciences  professor, said lung cancer is among the deadliest forms of the disease.

In 2009, more than 158,158 people died from lung cancer in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society. This was nearly four times as many deaths as breast cancer.

The researchers’ analyses will examine the financial and physical costs of screening procedures to help health professionals prioritize health care options for different diseases.

Once researchers understand the cost of increasing a person’s lifespan by one year by screening for cancer, it can be compared to other options.

More than a decade after the study began, Church said he considers the National Lung Screening Trial the first step in a longer process.

“I would hope if all of those things fall in line,” he said, “that we would have a national program of screening for lung cancer among heavy smokers and that ultimately we can save people’s lives.”