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Do you have lung cancer? The nose knows

May 17, 2011|By Amina Khan, Los Angeles Times / for the Booster Shots blog
  • Smoking alters some genes, which may increase the odds of getting lung cancer.
Smoking alters some genes, which may increase the odds of getting lung cancer. (Bruno Vincent / Getty Images )

There may be a cheap, easy way to detect lung cancer early, researchers say -- by picking a patient's nose.

Epithelial cells sampled from the inside of a person's nose share the same genetic markers that show up in people with lung cancer, according to research presented Sunday at the American Thoracic Society conference in Denver.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death -- the average five-year survival rate hovers at the 15% mark. But that's probably because the cancer gets caught too late to treat, because survival rates when it's diagnosed at an early stage are at a decent 60%. (Compare that to 2% for late-stage diagnoses.)

So lung cancer could be less deadly than thought -- if there was a way to catch it more often in the early stages, before it grows into a large tumor and spreads to other parts of the body.

But current tests, like open lung biopsy, involve cutting bits of lung tissue out of people to examine. It's expensive, not to mention a bit painful. Could there be a cheaper, less invasive way to test for the disease?

Researchers at the Boston University Medical Campus figured they'd try cells from the nose -- a part of our breathing apparatus that's pretty easy to access. They collected nasal epithelial cells from 33 smokers who were having bronchoscopies to look for cancer. Two-thirds of them ended up having lung cancer. After analyzing the cells, the researchers found there were 170 different genes whose level of activity was different, depending on whether or not a patient had lung cancer. Genes dealing with cell division and blood vessel growth, unsurprisingly, were much more active in patients with cancer.

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