Dr. David Carbone provides an overview of currently available treatments for non-small cell lung cancer patients, including clinical trials, and reviews factors that influence treatment decisions.
Dr. David Carbone is a medical oncologist and professor of internal medicine at The Ohio State University. Dr. Carbone is also co-leader of the Translational Therapeutics Program at the OSUCCC – James, where serves as director of the Thoracic Oncology Center. Learn more about Dr. Carbone, here.
What are the current approaches for treating non-small cell lung cancer?
Well, that’s a complex question. The basic modalities are surgery, which is really still what we prefer, if we can detect it early; radiation therapy; and medical therapy.
And medical therapy can be divided into chemotherapies of some sort – what we call targeted therapies, based on genetic abnormalities in the tumor – and then, immunotherapies to harness the immune system to fight cancer. Those are the three major kinds of therapies.
It seems like patients really do have a lot of options, which is a good thing for them. But how do you then decide which treatment is most appropriate for a given patient?
Well, it’s not straightforward. When I started 35 years ago, it really wasn’t clear whether any treatment made any difference, and we actually did a large, randomized trial of doing nothing versus treating, and showed that we could improve survival by a month or two with the currently available treatments. Now, we have a huge toolbox of types of treatments and combinations of treatments. And it really requires a careful analysis of the characteristics of the tumor to pick the best therapy.
And specifically, for the adenocarcinomas, the most common type, we now do a detailed genetic analysis on all of the tumors, which can completely change the type of treatment people get and the prognosis, and result in being able to match a pill-type targeted therapy to a particular genetic abnormality with really high efficacy and low toxicity. And there are other markers we use for immunotherapy choices. It’s become quite complicated.
Where do clinical trials fit in, Dr. Carbone?
Well, I like to say that clinical trials are tomorrow’s standard of care available today, and all of the new treatments that I’m talking about for lung cancer that have made this dramatic difference in survival and quality of life: They’ve all come because of basic science research, understanding how cancers grow, designing drugs, and using them in people in an intelligent way.
Historically, we used to just grind up tree bark or dig things up from the bottom of the sea, and test them in tissue culture to see if they killed cancer cells a little more than normal cells. But today, the treatments we have are based on science, and the success of these treatments is very high compared to what they were historically.
And the way we determine whether a treatment is effective is through something called a clinical trial, where generally the new treatment is compared to the standard treatment.
And if there is no standard treatment, we still do sometimes use placebo-controlled trials, but often that’s placebo plus some chemotherapy, versus the new drug plus that same chemotherapy.
So, it’s really not a placebo-only type situation. But the trials are designed to rigorously test whether the drug improves outcomes, and are an extremely important step in developing these new drugs and finding new things to help patients.