Nightly News   |  April 07, 2010

New test IDs smokers prone to lung cancer

Researchers have discovered a new approach for identifying smokers at the highest risk for developing lung cancer. NBC's Robert Bazell reports.

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This content comes from a Full-Text Transcript of the program.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: It has always been a medical mystery. You take two heavy smokers, one of them gets lung cancer , the other doesn't. Why is that? There is a new clue along those lines tonight and, if researchers are right, there may also be a relatively easy way to reduce the risk. More on this story from our chief science correspondent Robert Bazell .

SUE: Hi, Loretta.

Ms. LORETTA ROCHE: Hi, Sue.

ROBERT BAZELL reporting: Loretta Roche is one of 90 million Americans who once smoked cigarettes or still do.

Ms. ROCHE: Yeah, it was the thing to do.

BAZELL: Despite the enormous risk, only 10 to 20 percent of current and former smokers develop lung cancer . And Roche is part of a study that seems to explain why.

Dr. AVRUM SPIRA (Boston University School of Medicine): There are significant alterations.

BAZELL: Dr. Avrum Spira and his team have identified a set of genes shown in this pattern on a computer chip .

Dr. SPIRA: And we specifically found that this high level of activity of these genes precedes the development of lung cancer . So they're on their way to getting lung cancer .

BAZELL: Before the cancer develops, people with this gene pattern usually get dysplasia, abnormal cells that often become cancer .

Dr. SPIRA: And we can actually reverse the activity using a drug that inhibits this pathway.

BAZELL: The drug is called inositol, a plant product with few side effects already sold in health food stores. In a small initial experiment, Dr. Spira found that in six of 10 people the drug returned the gene pattern to normal and their abnormal cells also appeared healthy again. The National Cancer Institute already is testing inositol in former smokers to see if it reduces the rate of lung cancer .

Dr. SPIRA: Those gene activity patterns can tell us something about...

BAZELL: But this latest research shows the treatment could be more targeted.

Dr. SPIRA: Here we go, OK?

BAZELL: For now the cells for testing can only be recovered with a bronchoscope that goes deep in the airway. But the researchers believe they soon will be able to test cells from the nose or throat. What would you think if somebody took your work to be an excuse to continue smoking?

Dr. SPIRA: Well, I think that would be a mistake . Lung cancer is only one of many diseases that are associated with cigarette smoke exposure.

BAZELL: Still , this early work holds the promise of reducing deaths for what, Brian , is still the biggest cancer killer.

WILLIAMS: Now this is along the lines of the question you just asked that doctor. People with a heavy smoker in the family, someone who's just decided they can't quit, if they called having seen this story and said start taking this stuff, would that be wrong? Would that be bad?

BAZELL: I don't think it would be wrong or bad. And they can certainly do it. It's for sale in health food stores. Now, no responsible doctor is going to advise them to do it because there's a clinical trial .

WILLIAMS: Right.

BAZELL: And until that's finished, we don't know if it's going to work and we don't know if some untoward side effect that we haven't anticipated is going to appear.

WILLIAMS: Part of this era of multiple uses for things with one intent. Bob Bazell , thanks for stopping by, as always.