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Lung Cancer Research Highlights

The American Cancer Society has a long history of finding answers to critical questions about lung cancer – what causes it; how can it be prevented, detected, and treated successfully; and how lung cancer patients’ quality of life can be improved. These efforts have helped reduce lung cancer death rates in men by 36% over the past two decades and in women by 11% since 2002.

Despite this progress, lung cancer is still the leading cause of cancer death in the U.S., and the Society is committed to saving more lives from this lethal disease.

Lung Cancer Research Collaboration with Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C)

In January 2014, the American Cancer Society and Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C), a charitable organization that supports cancer research initiatives, announced a collaboration focused on lung cancer. The two organizations worked together to create a lung cancer research “Dream Team” that is working to develop new therapies for lung cancer. The project will receive $20 million in funding over a three-year period. The Society and SU2C will each provide half of the funding.

The Society is focusing on lung cancer for the first project of this partnership. This initiative has the potential to result in new life-saving lung cancer treatments.

From ACS Researchers

The American Cancer Society employs a staff of full-time researchers who relentlessly pursue the answers that help us better understand cancer, including lung cancer.

One of the main ways Society researchers study lung cancer is through long-term cancer prevention studies, which they have been conducting since 1952.The Society’s long-term follow-up studies confirmed the link between smoking and lung cancer, secondhand smoke and lung cancer, and radon exposure and lung cancer.

Researchers in the Society’s Epidemiology Research Program continue to make new discoveries related to lung cancer by analyzing data on an ongoing basis from Cancer Prevention Study II (CPS-II), which the Society began in 1982. Recent findings include:

  • Women who smoke today have a much greater risk of death from lung cancer than did female smokers 20 or 40 years ago, likely reflecting changes in smoking behavior. Women smokers today smoke more like men than did women in previous generations, beginning earlier in adolescence and, until recently, smoking more cigarettes per day. These results are based on data from CPS-II and other contemporary U.S. studies, analyzed by American Cancer Society researchers and others, and published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
  • Smoking cigarettes now causes more than 127,000 deaths from lung cancer in U.S. men and women each year, accounting for over 80% of all lung cancer deaths in the U.S. These results come from a major report issued by the Surgeon General in 2014, based on an analysis of CPS-II data along with data from other contemporary U.S. studies, conducted in part by American Cancer Society researchers.


The Society has also begun a new multi-year cancer prevention study, CPS-3, which will yield more findings about lung cancer in the future.

In addition, Society researchers in other program areas are conducting different types of lung cancer studies, including monitoring the issue worldwide. Recent findings include:

  • Globally, lung cancer death rates are declining for young women, but increasing for older women. Lindsey Torre, MSPH, the lead author on the study and director of surveillance information at the American Cancer Society, analyzed lung cancer death rates among women across 65 countries from 2006 to 2011. Torre and her co-authors attribute this age divergence – as well as differences found across countries – to variations in smoking patterns.
  • Africa is poised to become the “future epicenter of the tobacco epidemic,” according to an analysis by researchers in the Society’s Economic & Health Policy Research Program. The report warns that the number of adults in Africa who smoke could increase to 572 million by 2100, from 77 million today, unless leaders take steps to curb current trends.

ACS-Funded Research and Training Grants in Lung Cancer*

The Society also supports an Extramural Grants program that funds individual investigators engaged in cancer research or training at medical schools, universities, research institutes and hospitals throughout the U.S. Following rigorous and independent peer review, the most innovative research projects are selected for support.

Total ACS grants currently in effect addressing Lung Cancer: 97
Total ACS grant funding currently committed to Lung Cancer: $29,448,142

Spotlight on grantees: Following are some of the lung cancer investigators currently being funded by the American Cancer Society who are working to find the answers that will save more lives and better prevent, treat, and manage lung cancer.

Prevention and Early Detection

Sanja Percac-Lima 150x150Sanja Percac-Lima, M.D., Ph.D., at Massachusetts General Hospital is going to study whether bilingual community outreach workers can help increase lung cancer screening rates among older current and former smokers. Her work will focus on patients who use community health centers, as they are much more likely to smoke compared with people who get care from a private practice. Percac-Lima hopes her study will reveal a way to prevent the development of lung cancer screening disparities.


Mick EdmondsMick Edmonds, Ph.D., at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, is researching what causes lung cancer cells to develop and progress to help improve early detection of the disease. Edmonds is studying two molecules in particular, which he has shown in preliminary studies control lung tumor cell growth and movement. Edmonds hopes that gaining a better understanding of these and other similar molecules will lead to insights into how to diagnose lung cancer earlier and identify lung tumors that are likely to relapse.


Adam Leventhal PhDAdam Leventhal, PhD, at USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center is investigating the genetics of smokers in hopes of determining why some tobacco users have more severe withdrawal symptoms than others. His research focuses on African American smokers, because they are more likely than Caucasians to die from lung cancer, even though they smoke about the same amount or maybe even less. Some research suggests they also have a harder time quitting. Leventhal is surveying study participants during active smoking and a period of abstinence and noting changes in withdrawal symptoms. He's combining this information with a novel measure of reward-task outcomes to create a "change score" for each person that provides a snapshot of how much smoking abstinence affects them. He plans to link these scores to each person's genetic profile to see which, if any, genes may predict who is at higher risk for withdrawal. Leventhal believes his research will provide a better understanding of the biology of tobacco addiction and could lead to improved smoking cessation therapies.



Sam CykertSam Cykert, M.D., at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, is working on ways to increase the number of African-American early stage lung cancer patients who undergo surgery to have their tumor removed. Patients who have surgery to remove their lung tumors at an early stage have a much higher survival rate than those who do not. African Americans, though, are far less likely than whites to get this surgery. This may be part of the reason that the lung cancer mortality rate among African Americans is higher than among any other race or ethnicity. Cykert is testing a multi-faceted intervention to address the barriers to lung cancer surgery that African Americans face.  

Curtis -Chong- 150x150Curtis Chong, M.D., Ph.D., at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, is testing more than 1,000 drugs to find ones that could be used in lung cancer patients whose tumors have become resistant to current treatments. By drawing from the existing drug pool, Chong hopes to bypass the long and expensive road to new drug development – and get viable treatments to patients sooner. Chong is focused on lung cancer patients who have a mutation in a gene called EGFR as this form of lung cancer very often develops resistance to the drug currently used to treat it. 


Rob Svensson Robert U. Svensson, Ph.D., at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, is researching one of the genes that is most frequently mutated in lung cancer. This gene, LKB1, is a tumor suppressor gene. When working properly, it prevents cells from dividing uncontrollably and forming tumors. LKB1 mutations are associated with much more aggressive lung cancers and LKB1 mutant tumors are resistant to most cancer drugs. Svensson hopes that by gaining a deeper understanding of how LKB1 prevents tumor growth, he and others might be able to combat the growth of LKB1 mutant lung cancers.


woman talking to cancer patientCardinale Smith, M.D., at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, is researching the lung cancer care needs and barriers to receiving palliative care specific to minority patients with advanced lung cancer and their caregivers. Smith notes that minority lung cancer patients often underutilize palliative care — which addresses the side effects of cancer treatment — likely translating to increased suffering. Smith’s goal is for her findings to help inform the development of a culturally-appropriate palliative care intervention to help minority lung cancer patients.


Douglas Brownfield PhD Douglas Brownfield, Ph.D. at Stanford University School of Medicine, is investigating the cellular origins of the most common subtype of non-small cell lung cancer, called adenocarcinoma. His research focuses on the cells lining the airs sacs (or alveoli) in the lungs. Previous work from his lab and others suggests that adenocarcinoma most commonly arises in alveolar type 2 (AT2) cells. These cells function as stem cells that help replace dying alveolar cells with healthy ones, but they also promote lung cancer cell growth. He's using a novel technique called single cell expression profiling (which provides a look at the whole genome at single cell resolution) to study the cell signals that direct alveolar cell renewal. He theorizes that signals from a pathway called EGFR-KRAS control the AT2 cell self-renewal process but are hijacked during the formation of cancer. He hopes his findings will help to identify new ways of diagnosing transformed AT2 cells at earlier stages of lung cancer and ultimately lead to new targeted treatments.

test tubes with writing Daniel B. Costa, MD, PhD, at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, has examined precision medicine-directed therapies, called kinase inhibitors, in a subgroup of lung cancers that have a defect in a gene called anaplastic lymphoma kinase (ALK). New kinase inhibitors are being developed and tested for treatment of non-small cell lung cancer with such ALK rearrangements. However, despite impressive results, most of these tumors eventually become resistant to these drugs. Costa is using preclinical models of cancer and patient tissue samples to determine why and how this happens. He hopes his research will lead to a better understanding of how tumors adapt to cancer therapy and lead to the approval of new anti-cancer medications that improve lung cancer patients’ quality of life and survival.

*Information current as of August 1, 2015

Other Ways ACS Fights Lung Cancer

In addition to conducting and funding lung cancer research, the American Cancer Society helps fight lung cancer through education, support services, and advocacy. Explore how the Society helps>