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Air of Hope

Early detection: By the time patients experience symptoms, says Dr. Mark Block, it's often too late.

Researchers are working on new ways of detecting and treating lung cancer, the most deadly form of cancer in the U.S. Although it's far less common than prostate cancer for men and breast cancer for women, lung cancer is more difficult to treat, with a cure rate of less than 20%.

Scientists also are targeting prevention by seeking new ways to help people stop smoking cigarettes, the No. 1 cause of poor lung health.

"Part of the problem is that earlystage lung cancers don't provide any symptoms," says Dr. Mark Block, a thoracic surgeon in Hollywood who has been working in the field for more than 10 years.

By the time people experience symptoms such as pneumonia that doesn't clear up, a cough that persists for months, unexplained weight loss or longtime hoarseness, the cancer often is too far along to be treated successfully, he says.

A few promising advances have been made in recent years, and more are on the way, Block says. Among the latest developments:

? Chantix, or varenicline tartrate, a new class of drug recently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Taken in pill form, the drug is designed to help smokers quit cigarettes by blocking nicotine's effects while artificially producing some of them to ease withdrawal symptoms. The FDA fast-tracked the drug's approval process because cigarette smoking is such a major health concern.

? Video-assisted thoracic or thoracoscopic surgery, a minimally invasive procedure that allows doctors to view the inside of the chest cavity through small incisions. The method is useful for conducting biopsies on tumors, removing some cancerous masses and diagnosing infections.

? Endoscopic ultrasoundguided fine-needle aspiration, a minimally invasive technique used to analyze a patient's lymph nodes to determine how far the cancer has spread. Lung volume reduction surgery for people with emphysema. By removing about 30% of the damaged lungs, surgeons allow patients in advanced stages of the disease to breathe better. Developments have allowed some with advanced emphysema to become candidates for lung cancer surgery when they previously weren't considered because of poor lung function. Although the technique had been used for years, it was not covered by many insurance plans until it was validated in recent years by a national study.

? Lung metagene predictor, which scans thousands of genes looking for patterns that will show whether a patient is likely to see a recurrence of lung cancer. Trials on this test, just starting, are being led by a team from Duke University. If the technique is successful, Block says, doctors can recommend chemotherapy for people at high risk and avoid administering it to others unnecessarily.

? CT scans are becoming better and faster, but Block says it will be several years before doctors know whether routine use of CT scans to screen for lung cancer is effective in improving cure rates. He cautions patients against exposing themselves to the radiation of the scans for nothing.

? New drugs are being developed to target biological processes that spur growth of lung cancer cells. This would be an improvement over chemotherapy drugs, which are general poisons that affect even healthy cells. Among those to watch: Tarceva, or erlotinib, a drug recently approved by the FDA that suppresses the growth of lung tumors without harming healthy tissue.

Lung Cancer by the Numbers

  • An estimated 44.5 million American adults smoke cigarettes, and more than 8.6 million have at least one serious illness caused by smoking. > New lung cancer cases in U.S.: 174,470
  • Deaths in U.S.: 162,460
  • New cases in Florida: 13,280
  • Deaths in Florida: 12,370
  • Men: 92,700 new cases, 90,330 deaths
  • Women: 81,770 new cases, 72,130 deaths