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Autoantibodies show promise as markers for early lung cancer



Lung cancer is an aggressive disease and, if it presents late, usually results in a very short survival time. However, early detection with surgical resection can be curative.

Currently there is no mechanism for the detection of lung cancer in the early, treatable stages. A research paper, in Thorax, suggests that immune system proteins could act as an early warning for lung cancer.

The team compared blood samples from 50 healthy volunteers with those from 104 patients who had lung cancer. They looked for raised levels of seven autoantibodies known to be associated with solid tumours such as cancer of the lung, breast, ovary and prostate.

They found the presence of very high levels of at least one of the seven autoantibodies in 79 (76%) of the 104 patients with confirmed lung cancer. Interestingly, these autoantibodies were also found in eight of the nine patients with lung cancer in whom there was no spread to the lymph nodes. These are the very patients who have a good chance of cure.

Only four of the 50 healthy volunteers had raised levels of these autoantibodies.

The authors propose that these autoantibodies could be tested for in patients who are at high risk of lung cancer, such as heavy smokers. If positive, more detailed investigations could be performed.

This is a very exciting and potentially very important piece of research. However, the numbers used in the study are very small and further research is needed to establish if specific autoantibodies are detectable in the early, curable stage of the disease process and if these antibodies can be used as a screening tool for lung cancer.

Chapman CJ, Murray A, McElveen JE et al. Autoantibodies in lung cancer: possibilities for early detection and subsequent cure. Thorax 2007 doi: 10.1136/thx.2007.083592


Dr Kavi Sharma
GP, Sunderland and GP adviser to Macmillan for the Northern Region

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