Health Beat: Lung cancer — killing tumors without chemotherapy

Health Beat: Lung cancer — killing tumors without chemo

BOSTON - Lung cancer is the leading cancer killer in both men and women in the United States. In fact, more people die from lung cancer than colon, breast, and prostate cancers combined.

The common course of action is surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. A new drug, however, is now helping people with lung cancer live longer without the harmful side effects of chemo.

"I'm active, a non-smoker, and healthy," said Justin Perry, who, despite all that, was diagnosed by doctors with late-stage lung cancer.

Perry thought he would be facing chemotherapy, but when doctors tested his lung cancer tissue, they realized he was among the three percent of patients with an abnormal ALK gene. 

"A genetic alteration happens because a piece of chromosome has switched over on to its side," said Dr. Pasi Janne, director of the Lowe Center for Thoracic Oncology and medical oncologist, Dana Farber Cancer Institute.

That alteration made Perry a candidate for a targeted drug therapy trial. Instead of chemotherapy at the hospital, Perry took the more targeted therapy, ALK inhibitor pills at home.

"It doesn't make you lose your hair; it doesn't make you lose weight," Janne said.

Studies show that people with the ALK mutation may have a response rate of more than 50 percent, compared to ten percent with chemo. Perry said taking four to five pills a day outweighs daily or weekly chemo treatments.

"The first week I was already noticing a difference, Perry said.

In just two months, the ALK inhibitor has shrunk most of the tumors in Perry's lungs, allowing him to breathe easier, knowing neither cancer nor chemo will get the best of him.

Doctors said they are continuously working on new and improved targeted therapies, called inhibitors, because eventually, in most patients, the cancer could figure out a way around the ALK inhibitors and come back.

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DOWNLOAD and VIEW the full-length interview with Dr. Pasi Janne about killing lung cancer tumors without chemotherapy

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