Scientists make significant lung cancer discovery

[Mar. 16, 2023: Sam Jeremic, Edith Cowan University]

Lung cancer treatment has improved in recent years – and a new study from Edith Cowan University has figured out how to make it even more effective. (Credit: Creative Commons)

Lung cancer is the deadliest form of cancer, responsible for around 1.8 million deaths worldwide.

Treatment for the disease has improved in recent years – and a new study from Edith Cowan University has found how to make it even more effective.

Immunotherapy has become a major weapon in the fight against non-small cell lung cancer, which accounts for 80-85% of all lung cancer diagnoses.

Unfortunately, immunotherapy can also lead to serious side effects for patients: at least 74% of those treated will experience adverse effects related to the immune system.

Up to 21% will develop grade three or four toxicity, which can lead to lifelong complications affecting the skin, gut, liver or endocrine system.

These side effects may lead to the discontinuation of cancer treatment, which may cause the disease to progress.

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But, somewhat contradictory, people who experience these side effects of immunotherapy tend to have more positive outcomes with the progression of their cancer than those who don’t.

Study supervisor, Associate Professor Elin Gray, from ECU’s Center for Precision Health, described immunotherapy as a kind of “double-edged sword” – but the researchers made a critical breakthrough.

“Immunotherapies free up the immune system to recognize and kill cancer cells,” she said.

“But they can also release immune cells to attack the body, causing toxicities.

“Our research shows for the first time that certain genetic characteristics predispose cancer patients to develop side effects or toxicities to cancer therapy.”

Associate Professor Elin Gray. (Credit: Edith Cowan University)

“Knowing this will allow doctors to improve the treatment given to patients.”

The “HLA” discovery benefits everyone

The key to the research lies in human leukocyte antigens, or HLAs, which are markers found in most cells in the body.

Dr Afaf Abed. (Credit: Edith Cowan University)

The immune system uses HLAs to determine which cells belong and don’t belong in your body and are part of the alarm system that detects viruses, infections and cancer.

The research team looked at the HLAs of 179 patients with non-small cell lung cancer and found a strong link between the genetic makeup of the HLAs and the person’s likelihood of developing side effects from immunotherapy.

Dr. Afaf Abed, study leader, said the discovery would benefit all patients with non-small cell lung cancer, whether or not they are genetically predisposed to the adverse effects of immunotherapy.

“If a person is found to be at no risk of side effects, doctors can speed up treatment and be more aggressive in fighting the disease,” she said.

“If they are found to be at higher risk, doctors can take treatment more easily, monitor it and intervene before patients develop grade 3 or 4 toxicity.

“Either way, biomarkers that predict the risk of these immune-mediated adverse events in patients may reduce the risks associated with these treatments.”

“The association of HLA genotype with the development of immune system-related adverse events (irAEs) in patients with non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) treated with single-agent immunotherapy” was published in the European Journal of Cancer.

For more scientific news, see our New discoveries section on The bright side of the news.

Note: The documents provided above by Edith Cowan University. Content may be edited for style and length.

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