What You Need to Know About Lung Cancer Research

What You Need to Know About Lung Cancer Research from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

As a lung cancer patient, why should you stay informed about research? Expert Dr. Heather Wakelee reviews what patients need to know.

Heather Wakelee, MD is Professor of Medicine in the Division of Oncology at Stanford University. More about this expert here.

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Transcript:

Dr. Wakelee:

So, there’s so much happening in lung cancer research now, it is hard to really narrow it down to one thing to be specifically excited about. Where we have made so much progress in particular is with target treatments, and also with immune therapy. So, when we think about the targeted treatments, it’s only been about 15 years since we first learned about drugs that would specifically target the EGFR gene mutations.

And when we found a tumor with an EGFR gene mutation, we then had a medication we could give that would work better than chemo. And now we have five EGFR drugs available in the US. And then we found out about this ALK gene mutation that happen in some tumors. Now we have five drugs that work there. And the with ROS1, that was found, and now we’ve got four drugs that work there that are approved.

And it seems that we keep learning about more and more mutations, so those are mutations called NTRK and BRAF. And with all of those, we now have drug treatments, so it’s been very, very rapid discovery of specific gene mutations and drugs that work for that. And I think we’re continuing to see new targets being identified and new drugs being found.

And also, when those drugs stop working, better understanding why and what we can do to help them work longer, or what we can give next. So, that’s a very active area of research that’s exciting. And then we have the immune therapy. So, the ones that are available so far are drugs that block either PD-1 or PD-L1, and that’s one of the really important stop signals for the immune system.

And tumors can use that stop signal to block an immune reaction to a tumor. But if you block that stop signal then the immune system can attack the cancer. So, that’s really important, these PD-1, PD-L1 drugs.

We also know about another stop signal called CTLA-4, and there’re drugs that block that as well. And now, where there’s a ton of research is in trying to work with other parts of the immune system, other either pro-immune or anti-immune signals, and changing those in a way where we can improve the ability of the immune system to find the cancer cells and attack the cancer cells.

So, there are many, many studies being done with drugs, and especially in combinations, trying to get that response against the cancer from the immune system to be even stronger. And that’s, I think, where we’re making the most exciting headway now.

New and Improved Lung Cancer Treatment Options

New and Improved Lung Cancer Treatment Options from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Are there new lung cancer treatment options that you should know about? Expert Dr. Heather Wakelee reviews the latest research. Looking for more information? Download the Find Your Voice Resource Guide here.

Heather Wakelee, MD is Professor of Medicine in the Division of Oncology at Stanford University. More about this expert here.

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Transcript:

Dr. Wakelee:

So, the treatment of lung cancer has been changing very, very quickly. We’ve had a lot of new options that have become available in the last few years, and there’re new ones coming along all the time. When I started treating lung cancer, which was a number of years ago, we were able to treat and help people.

But our only real option when the cancer was metastatic was chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is still an important part of treatment for many people, but now we have other options. So, starting about 15 years ago, people were able to identify that some tumors had specific genetic changes. We also call these molecular changes, or gene mutations, or just mutations in the tumor. They have a lot of different names.

But when we do find them, these are things like EGFR or ALK or ROS or BRAF or MET, we actually have different treatment options that only work for tumors that have those specific genetic changes, and don’t work in tumors that don’t have those. So, when we talk about genetic changes a lot of people think, “Oh, that’s something that I’ve inherited.”

These are not things that are inherited. This is not something that’s in the whole person. It’s just in the tumor. So, it’s a mutation that happened in the DNA of the cell, and that cell then became the cancer. And depending on what that mutation or mutations are, we still can have chemotherapy, and that can work.

But for specific ones, and specifically EGFR, ALK, ROS, BRAF, we know that there are pill drugs and oral medication that actually is gonna be better than chemo, at least for a period of time, if a cancer has that specific mutation.

So, it’s really, really important to figure that out. It’s not something a doctor can sort out just by looking at the patient or looking at the tumor under the microscope. We have to do special testing, looking at the tumor DNA.

And we now have ways of looking for those mutations, not just in the tumor tissue, but also sometimes with blood. So, we can draw a blood test and look for those as well when there’s a tumor that’s shedding the DNA. So, it’s really important to think about that. And we now have a whole host of medications that we can offer people when we the find these mutations that we didn’t used to have, even a few years ago.

And, actually, if you think back over the last five years, we’ve had new drugs approved, a few of them every year, for these specific gene mutation tumors, so that’s really, really exciting. The other thing that’s changed dramatically just in the last five years is what we call immune therapy.

So, when we think about the different types of treatment, chemotherapy works by poisoning DNA. And in order to make a new cell, you have to make new DNA. Tumors are doing that more than a lot of normal tissue, and so we’re able to give chemotherapy and specifically hurt tumors and not the rest of the person very much.

With the targeted treatments where we find a gene target and where there’s a gene mutation in a tumor, those are medications that specifically hit that altered gene, that altered protein made by the gene. And then they work really, really well. What immune therapy does is it actually changes the way your body’s own immune system interacts with the tumor. So, we have a lot of types of immune cells, but the ones that are involved in really fighting the cancer directly are called T cells.

And so, normally, a T cell would recognize something that’s foreign like an abnormal-looking cell that’s a cancer, and attack it. But we have a lot of different systems in our body that stop the T cells from recognizing normal tissue and attacking it.

And one of the best systems for that is something called PD-1 and PD-L1. And so, if you have a T cell and it sees a PD-L1 signal on tissue, it assumes that that tissue was normal tissue and it doesn’t attack. But if you can hide that PD-L1 signal, then if it’s a T cell, a part of the immune system comes in and doesn’t see the PD-L1, it doesn’t get the stop signal. It’s not told to not attack. So, it could attack the tumor better.

And I’m not describing it well because it’s so complicated. There are a lot of different factors that help a T cell know whether to attack or not to attack. But, again, one of these key stop signals is the PD-1, PD-L1 interaction. And so, scientists were able to develop medications that can block PD-1 or PD-L1. And when those medications are in the body, if a tumor is using that particular stop signal as a way to hide from the immune system, when you give the medication that blocks it then the tumor is no longer hiding.

And then the immune system, those T cells, can come in and attack. So, these immune treatments, and there are now a lot, and so these are drugs, like pembrolizumab, also called Keytruda; nivolumab, which also called Opdivo; durvalumab, which is called IMFINZI. And there are many, many others. Those medications have now been shown to really, really help to fight cancer, particularly when the tumor is using that PD-L1 signal. But they can also be combined with chemotherapy and then they work even if there’s not a lot of PD-L1 in the tumor. So, again, it’s a very complex story.

But where we’ve seen dramatic improvements in treatment is we have targeted treatments when the genes are – there are specific genes mutating in tumors. We have immune therapy, which worked for a lot of other people. And sometimes when there’s also gene mutation, but not always, we still have chemotherapy. And then there’s ongoing research with a lot of different medications. Many of them are focusing on better ways to get the immune system to work against cancers beyond what we can already do.

Being Empowered: The Benefits of Learning About Your Lung Cancer

The Benefits of Learning About Your Lung Cancer from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

As a lung cancer patient, why should you stay informed about research? Expert Dr. Heather Wakelee provides her advice. Find your voice with the Pro-Active Patient Toolkit Resource Guide, available here.

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Transcript:

Dr. Wakelee:

So, as a patient living with lung cancer, you have many options today that you wouldn’t have had 5, 10, 15 years ago, which is wonderful.

Because things are changing so quickly, it’s very hard for physicians and other care providers to keep up with all of the latest information. It’s especially hard if you are seeing an oncologist who not only has to keep up with everything that’s happening in lung cancer, but also everything that’s happening in breast cancer, and colon cancer, and melanoma, and so many other diseases.

And so, while everybody does their best to know the latest and greatest in research, and all of the new drug approvals, sometime that’s just possible. So, as a patient, you wanna make sure that you, focused on your particular disease, are up-to-date on what you can possibly know about the best ways to treat your disease, so you can talk to your physician and make sure that he or she also knows about those, and is using that latest information to help you get the best possible care.

There’s also a lot of ongoing clinical trials. And being able to ask about those and know what may or may not make sense for you, is also a reasonable thing to be able to talk with your doctor about.

And sometimes that involves continuing your care with your doctor, but also getting another opinion, particularly at a research center where they might have access to more trials, new drugs, some of which might be better than what’s available, and some of which might not be. But without talking to people about that, you’re not gonna be able to know that.

And that’s why it’s really important to do what you can or your family can do to be educated and know what is going on in the field of lung cancer, so you can get the best possible care.

Diagnosed with Lung Cancer? Why You Should Seek a Second Opinion

Diagnosed with Lung Cancer? Why You Should Seek a Second Opinion from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Should you seek a second opinion? Lung cancer expert Dr. Heather Wakelee explains when to consider seeing a specialist. Looking for more information? Download the Find Your Voice Resource Guide here.

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Transcript:

Dr. Wakelee:

So, when facing a new diagnosis of lung cancer, one of the questions that often comes up is whether one should go get a second opinion or see a lung cancer specialist. And that is a question that obviously is gonna vary quite a bit by where a person is, where they’re getting seen, and what they’re facing.

I think a time that it’s really critical would be if someone has a Stage III lung cancer or told it might be Stage III. That’s a really good time to get a second opinion and make sure that the group that is taking care of you has had a multidisciplinary discussion. And when I say multidisciplinary, I mean, a thoracic surgeon, a radiation oncologist, and a medical oncologist have altogether looked at what’s going on with the particular case of that patient to decide up front what’s gonna be the best approach.

Because sometimes surgery is the right first approach. And sometimes it’s not. And sometimes radiation’s important, and sometimes it’s not.

So, it’s really critical to have a big team looking at what’s going on for Stage III. And if you’re in a hospital that really doesn’t see a lot of Stages III lung cancer that might be a good time to think about getting a second opinion outside of where you’re being treated.

I think, otherwise, if someone is newly diagnosed and we know the cancer is early stage where surgery might be involved, it’s good to check in that the surgeons who would be doing your operation are surgeons who know about lung cancer and have done lung cancer surgeries frequently. Sometimes in smaller hospitals there are surgeons who do both heart and lung surgery. And we know that the outcomes are not always quite as good in that setting.

Sometimes there’s no choice, and that’s okay. But if there is an opportunity to talk to a dedicated thoracic surgeon who’s used to doing lung cancer surgery, that’s another good time to get a second opinion. When we’re dealing with a more advanced stage of metastatic lung cancer, if someone is newly diagnosed and their tumor ends up having an unusual gene mutation or translocation.

And the molecular changes in lung cancer are really important to know about. And things like EGFR and ALK and RAS, where most medical oncologists will be familiar. But there’re others, like BRAF and RET and MET, and those can really change treatment outcomes as well, but not everybody who sees lots of different kinds of cancer as an oncologist will know everything there is to know about those.

So, if you have an unusual gene mutation, that’s another good time to get a second opinion with someone who’s a dedicated lung cancer expert. And usually those folks are at the larger academic medical centers, so oftentimes in cities, or affiliated with universities.

Another time is if someone does have a tumor with an EGFR, ALK, or one of the more common mutations, but the main drugs have stopped working, that’s often a time where someone who has specialized just in lung cancer might have some other options.

It’s also something to think through when someone’s newly diagnosed, if they know that their doctor has looked at the immune markers like PD-L1, and looked at the genetic changes in the tumor, and has a clear plan that’s gonna involve chemotherapy, or chemotherapy plus radiation, or chemotherapy plus immune therapy.

Then there might not be something that’s gonna be different in an academic center. But before you start treatment, if you’re still feeling okay, don’t have to start treatment tomorrow, and wanna know maybe that there’re clinical trial options, that’s another time to think about getting a second opinion. And a lot of academic centers will work to get people in very, very quickly if they knew they’ve just been diagnosed and they really need to get started on treatment right away.

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Diagnosed with Lung Cancer? An Expert Outlines Key Steps from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

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Transcript:

Dr. Wakelee:

For a patient who is facing a new diagnosis of lung cancer, there are a lot of really important things to keep in mind. But really thinking about top three of them, the first one is that you wanna know what stage the cancer is. And when we talk about stage, we’re talking about how far the caner has spread. So, sometimes a cancer is found at Stage I when it’s still just a mass, a tumor in the lung.

Stage II means that it’s spread into some of the lymph nodes that are still in the lung. And for Stage I and II, for most people, we know that that means surgery is the treatment option. The next stage is Stage III, and that means that the cancer has started to spread into these lymph nodes.

And lymph nodes are just normal part of the body, but it’s a place cancer often will go. And if it goes into the lymph nodes in the center of the chest, called the mediastinum, then it becomes Stage III. And that changes the treatment. It’s usually more complicated. You wouldn’t normally just have surgery. There’s still sometimes surgery, and sometimes radiation, and almost always some sort of treatment like chemotherapy.

But it’s very complex. And usually we recommend that if you know it’s Stage III that you have a team that’s surgeons and radiation oncologists and medical oncologists to think about it. And then Stage IV means that’s it’s spread. So, knowing – meaning that it’s spread in a way where treatments are gonna involve chemotherapy or targeted treatment or immune therapy, and sometimes radiation, but not normally surgery.

And so, because it’s such a big difference in how things are treated based on stage, that’s the most important question to talk to your treating team about. The next most important question, assuming that it’s metastatic or Stage IV because that’s the most common way that we find lung cancer.

If it is metastatic or Stage IV then you wanna find out well, are there any markers, any tumor markers or cancer genetic changes, that are gonna help pick the treatment. And when I say that, I’m talking about gene changes in specific genes. The ones we think about a lot is something called EGFR, or epidermal growth factor receptor; or ALK, which is A-L-K; KRAS. There’s a whole list of them. But the most important are EGFR, ALK, and ROS, and BRAF.

And why that’s so critical is that if you have metastatic cancer and the tumor has one of those mutations then instead of chemotherapy, the best treatments are gonna be pill drugs, so basically, medications that you take my mouth. And we know that when the tumor has one of those specific mutations, the pill drugs are gonna be more likely to shrink the tumor and have that last longer. So, that’s why it’s so important to know about that. And then the other thing that we look at a lot is something called PD-L1, and that helps us determine about the immune therapy.

So, there’s been a lot on the news about this new class of treatments called immune therapy. And those can work for a lot of different people with a lot of different kinds of cancers. But they don’t always work. And this PD-L1 test can help us know a little bit more about when it might be the best choice, or when it might be something we can add to chemotherapy. And so, getting that information back is important, too.

And I’m gonna add a little bit extra to that. A lot of times that PD-L1 result will come back faster than the gene changes of the tumor, the molecular changes to the tumor. And it’s important to have the whole picture, so you wanna know not just what stage, not just the PD-L1, but also if there are any gene changes in the tumor, so that the best treatment choice can be talked about with the care team.