BU School of Medicine lands $13.6M grant for cancer research

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Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) has received a $13.6 million grant to be the lead institution in a study aimed at developing technologies for the early detection of lung cancer. The five-year multi-site, multi-phase study that will focus on active military personnel and veterans is funded by the U. S. Department of Defense Lung Cancer Research Program.

BUSM will collaborate with military hospitals and Veteran’s Affairs medical centers across the country that collectively have the ability to investigate a large number of patients and gain access to a diverse variety of researchers and tools. The Detecting Early Lung Cancer Among Military Personnel (DECAMP) Consortium represents the largest consortium of researchers dedicated to identifying non-invasive ways to detect lung cancer early.

In the military population, smoking rates are about 50 percent higher than the civilian population, and veterans in particular are 25 to 75 percent more likely to develop lung cancer than non-veterans. There has been an increase in smoking among members of the armed forces stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the rate is 50 percent higher in deployed vs. non-deployed personnel. Additionally, the exposure of other substances in the air when in combat, including radon, asbestos and fuel exhaust, is elevated among military personnel.

Current lung cancer detection methods consist of invasive procedures usually used after symptoms occur and after the cancer has begun to spread, according to principal investigator Avrum Spira, MD, associate professor of medicine, pathology and bioinformatics at BUSM and a pulmonologist at Boston Medical Center. The researchers hope to use advanced imaging techniques and tests of molecular biomarkers to develop a non-invasive way of detecting lung cancer before it become untreatable.

The DECAMP consortium will address two critical clinical questions resulting from the National Lung Screening Trial (NLST). That study indicated that lung cancer screening with low-dose CT scans can reduce lung cancer mortality among those at high risk for the disease, but the CT scans in the study had a very high false positive rate. Spira and colleagues, in the first phase of the study, will use molecular biomarkers to more accurately distinguish between benign and cancerous lung nodules observed on CT scans.

In the second phase of the study, researchers hope to identify biomarkers that can predict which smokers are at risk for developing lung cancer among those without abnormalities on CT scans of the chest.

“The non-invasive methods to be developed will have the capability to distinguish between patients with or without lung cancer, as well as identify patients who show early signs of a higher risk for the disease,” Spira said in a statement. “Lung cancer is the most lethal of all cancers, and this research could potentially lead to less people dying from the disease.”