Supporting Research for Non-Tobacco Related Cancers

Smoking is by far the leading cause of lung cancer, but about 20% of people who die from lung cancer have never smoked or used any other forms of tobacco. In fact, some lung cancers occur in people without any known risk factors.

Since the early 1990s, the American Cancer Society has invested over $134 million in lung cancer research, including over $29 million for research specific to lung cancer not associated with smoking. 

Tobacco Atlas

The 6th edition of the Tobacco Atlas book and companion website was produced by the American Cancer Society and Vital Strategies. Check out our slideshow on 12 Key Findings to learn more about the physical, social, and economic harms of tobacco and about evidence-based solutions to advance toward a tobacco-free world.

Research Grants in Lung Cancer

The American Cancer Society funds scientists and medical professionals who study cancer across the United States.

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Total Lung Cancer Grants in Effect as of August 1, 2021

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Total Lung Cancer Grant Funding in Effect as of August 1, 2021

Spotlight on Lung Cancer Grantees

We use a rigorous and independent peer review process to select the most innovative research projects to support. Here are some scientists who have grants or who recently published high-impact research made posible by funding from the American Cancer Society. 

Searching for Precision Treatments for BRG1-Deficient Lung Cancers

Grantee: Carla F. Kim, PhD
Institution: Children's Hospital Boston
Area of Focus: Mission Boost
Grant Term: 1/1/2019 to 1/1/2021

Precision medicine is like having a special dart that heads right for the bulls’ eye on a dartboard. Knowing which exact genetic mutation a cancer cell has helps doctors know which treatment is most likely to work.

Right now, there aren’t any approved targeted treatments for a specific mutation in the SMARCA4/BRG1 gene that is found in certain types of lung cancers. These are called BRG1-deficient lung cancers. This mutated gene appears in up to 20% of non-small cell lung cancers (NSCLC).

These lung cancers are also resistant to many standard treatments. That means at least some cancer cells survive after treatment. Until now, it’s been unclear how mutations in the BRG1 gene contributed to drug resistance in this type of lung cancer.

Earlier studies by Carla Kim, PhD and other researchers suggest a potential precision treatment showed promise for NSCLC with BRG1 mutations. In the studies, Kim used drugs that target a protein called ATR and that block, or inhibit, its function.

A recent article in Cancer Research described some of Kim’s findings that were supported by her ACS Mission Boost grant. She and her colleagues showed that the new ATR-blocking drugs killed BRGI-deficient lung cancer cells in the lab as well as in mice with implanted lung cancer tumors (called patient-derived xenografts).

Kim is the senior author of the article, and two of her co-authors are also ACS grantees studying lung cancer: Carla Concepcion, PhD, from Boston, and Christine Brainson, PhD, from Lexington, Kentucky.

Why Does It Matter? ATR blockers, or inhibitors, are already being used in Phase 1 (human) clinical trials for other types of cancer. The results from Kim’s study show that that ATR blockers could be an effective treatment for lung cancers with the mutation in the BRG1 gene.

The study’s coauthors also said that other types of cancer with a similar genetic mutation may respond well to treatment with ATR blockers. Those cancers may include endometrial, stomach, and certain rare ovarian cancers. This evidence could help this new treatment for certain hard-to-treat lung cancers move quickly to human clinical trials.

Read the study.

Study: Newly Discovered Metabolic Differences in Tumor Cell Subtypes May Be Exploited to Develop New Drug Targets

Grantees: Malathy Shanmugam, PhD, MS and Adam I. Marcus, PhD
Institution: Emory University School of Medicine 
Area of Focus: Cell Biology and Preclinical Cancer Research
Grant Term: The research described here was not supported by an ACS grant. As previous ACS grantees, Dr. Shanmugam studied targeting altered metabolism in melanoma, and Dr. Marcus studied lung cancer metastasis.

Much research has focused on the main types of cells that make up a tumor. But tumors are actually made up of different subtypes of cells that often behave differently from each other. Less is known about the function of these cell subtypes, especially those involved in metastasis.

During metastasis, cancer cells break away from a tumor and travel to another part of the body where they invade tissue to form a new tumor. There are fewer treatments that are effective for cancers that have spread, and treatment for metastatic cancer tends to be more complicated.

Studies have shown that, most of the time, single cancer cells do not metastasize on their own. Instead, increasing evidence suggests that a collection of cell subtypes collaborate as an “invasion pack” during metastasis. Understanding how these cell subtypes work together to spread cancer is key to developing treatments that can help stop cancer from spreading.

The Shanmugam and Marcus labs at Emory University in Atlanta used the first chemical biology screen to explore how cell subtypes cooperate within invasion clusters of metastatic lung cancer cells. They looked at two tumor cell subtypes that invade new tissue, leader cells and follower cells. They discovered that these two cell populations have certain metabolic requirements—getting energy they need to survive.

This diversity in the metabolic needs of cells is known as metabolic plasticity. Shanmugam and Marcus speculate that in the invasion pack, this diversity may help cancer cells “better adapt to the selective pressures of the tumor microenvironment and maintain the ability to ‘go’ and ‘grow’ as a cooperative unit.” The researchers also showed that they could use these metabolic needs to suppress or block cell growth and tumor invasion.

Why Does It Matter? This research from Shanmugam and Marcus demonstrates that understanding the distinct metabolic needs of tumor cell subtypes can help lead to the development of drugs that target the special requirements of each cell population. This has the potential to limit their ability to work together to spread and grow.

Read more about this study.

Yoga Programs May Improve Quality of Life for Couples Coping With Lung Cancer

Grantee: Kathrin Milbury, PHD
Institution: University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston
Area of Focus: Cancer Control and Prevention Research
Term: 1/1/2019 to 12/31/2022

People living with lung cancer may have symptoms like fatigue and depression. Their partners, who are often caregivers, also report high rates of fatigue, disturbed sleep, depression, and anxiety. Support programs that recognize both partners can help them improve their quality of life.

Previous studies by Kathrin Milbury, PhD, showed promising results for using yoga as a way to improve symptoms and quality of life of patients and their partners during the weeks of radiation treatment. Now, Milbury is running a clinical trial with the support of an ACS grant.

During 6 weeks of radiation treatment, patients and their partners are randomly assigned to 1 of 3 groups: couples’ yoga, patient-only yoga, or education only, without yoga. Those in the yoga groups receive 15, 1-hour sessions of yoga. All patients and their partners fill out reports on their symptoms and quality of life before being assigned to a group and answer the questions again during the last week of radiation, and 1, 3, and 6 months after radiation is done.

Why Does It Matter? Informal caregivers, particularly spouses and life partners, are important sources of support and care for cancer survivors. Caregiving is physically and psychologically taxing, and it’s critical to address the health and quality of life of caregivers so the quality of care they provide is not compromised. Yoga, a proven mind-body practice, has been shown to improve physical functioning and the quality of life of cancer survivors and their caregivers.

See the clinical trial.

From Our 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.

Findings from County-Level Study of Lung Cancer Surgery May Stimulate Health Equity

Researcher: Ahmedin Jemal, DVM, PhD
Institution: American Cancer Society, Data Science 
ACS Research Program: Health Services Research

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States. When lung cancer is diagnosed in its early stages (stage I or II), surgery intended to cure the cancer is usually one part of the standard treatment.

Yet previous research from ACS epidemiologist Ahmedin Jemal, DVM, PhD and others showed that there are differences among US states for who receives surgery due to race, type of health care facility, and geography. Recently, he expanded his research to the county level, which is the common starting point for measuring access to health care in the US and for recognizing the need for more targeted interventions.

Jemal and other researchers, including 4 others from the ACS Data Science program, did a large 7-year study of people diagnosed with early-stage non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC, the most common type of lung cancer) in about 2,300 counties from 39 states, plus the District of Columbia, and the city of Detroit.

They found that every state—even those with high overall rates of surgeries intended to cure NSCLC—had counties where only a small percentage of NSCLC patients received surgery. The differences between counties was substantially greater than the differences they found between states. The variation was significantly associated with several factors that are potentially modifiable. Those factors included the percentage of people without health insurance and below the federal poverty level, rural/urban status, and surgeon-to-population ratio.

Why does it matter? Documenting differences in surgical treatment at the county level “contributes invaluable evidence to stimulate corrective [health] policy changes” at the federal, state, and county level, the authors said. For instance, expanding Medicaid eligibility and public health programs that target rural communities “may enhance financial well-being, health insurance coverage, and access to health care at the county level,” the authors wrote. County-level studies, they said, can stimulate initiatives that target the improvement of referral or care coordination between nearby counties, regardless of state boundaries.

Read the study.

Lung Cancer Statistics Update in 2021 Facts & Figures

Researcher: Rebecca Siegel, MPH
Institution: American Cancer Society, Data Science
ACS Research Program: Surveillance Research

To understand how well cancer control is working in the United States, we need up-to-date information about the number of people affected by cancer and where they live.

Led by Rebecca Siegel, MPH, the Data Science program analyzes data on lung cancer each year as part of its Cancer Facts & Figures report.

These publications provide detailed analyses and estimates of cancer incidence and mortality trends in the United States. They also have the latest information on risk factors, early detection, treatment, and current research.

  • About 235,760 people will be diagnosed with lung cancer in 2021. From 2014 to 2018, the rates of new lung cancer cases dropped 5% a year in men and 4% a year in women.
  • Trends in cancer death rates are the best measure of progress against cancer. About 131,880 people will die from lung cancer in 2021. Lung cancer death rates declined by 54% since 1990 among men and 30% since 2002.
  • Improvements in the lung cancer death rate are due to declines in smoking and advances in early detection and treatment.
  • Differences between men and women reflect historical patterns of tobacco use. Women began smoking in large numbers many years later than men, and women were slower to quit. However, smoking patterns do not appear to explain the higher lung cancer rates being reported in women compared with men born around the 1960s.
  • Compared to other types of cancer, lung cancer has the most striking variation by state. In Kentucky, the death rate from lung cancer is 3 to 4 times higher than in Utah. This difference reflects the historically much higher prevalence of smoking in Kentucky. In 2018, 27% of adults in West Virginia smoked, compared with 9% in Utah. State tobacco control policies can have a large impact on smoking rates.
  • Anyone can get lung cancer. Yet people who smoke are about 25 times more likely to develop lung cancer than people who don't smoke, and about 80% of deaths from lung cancer are caused by smoking. People who quit smoking, regardless of age, increase their longevity. Those who quit by age 30 live an average of 10 years longer than if they had continued to smoke.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of death from cancer. To learn more, see: Cancer Statistics Center website.

ACS Lung Cancer Research News