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Winter 2007

Clinical Trials Target Women with Lung Cancer

Lung cancer now the leading cause of cancer death in women in the United States

Lung cancer has traditionally been associated more with men than with women. Unfortunately, even if the perception hasn’t changed, the reality has. “Over the last 50 years, the death rate from lung cancer among women has increased by about 600 percent,” says Jay M. Lee, M.D., UCLA thoracic surgeon. “It’s a staggering statistic that is unparalleled in other cancers.”

 More women die from lung cancer than from any other cancer—more than from breast and gynecologic malignancies combined, Dr. Lee notes. Although men continue to be diagnosed with the disease in greater numbers, the gap has narrowed dramatically in recent years, reflecting differences between the sexes in smoking trends.

“The vast majority of lung cancer patients have a history of smoking,” says Edward Garon, M.D., UCLA hematologist- oncologist. “Historically, men have smoked at higher rates than women. But the last couple of decades has seen a much sharper decrease in smoking among men than among women, and that trend is now being reflected in lung cancer rates.”

Smoking rates aside, women also appear be more susceptible to getting lung cancer than men, according to Dr. Lee. The UCLA Lung Cancer Program, part of UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, is currently investigating gender differences in tumor biology and genetic events that might provide an explanation. On the other hand, women appear to be more likely to respond to the new targeted therapies that are coming to fruition. This is particularly the case among non-smoking women, who have fared the best on the recently approved targeted drug erlotinib. “We feel strongly that the outcome with conventional therapies is insufficient and that clinical trials will help us gain insights that will allow us to improve treatment in the future,” says Dr. Garon. “Clinical studies that specifically target women—or that seem to be more effective in women—are available. Women with lung cancer should evaluate those options.”

The treatment of lung cancer has become increasingly complex, involving different combinations of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy, along with experimental treatments offered in clinical trials, Dr. Lee notes. For this and other reasons, he recommends that lung-cancer patients seek the type of multidisciplinary treatment approach offered at a cancer center.

For more information about clinical trials, go to www.lungcancer.ucla.edu.

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