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Continuing Lung Cancer Research



Neelu Puri, PhD

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death worldwide. About 8 million Americans are at high risk for lung cancer, but less than 6 percent will get screened using the best technology currently available, which is low-dose computed tomography (LDCT), a special type of CT scan that minimizes the amount of radiation used. Thanks to new grant funding, University of Illinois College of Medicine Rockford researchers will continue to promote LDCT screening as they search for even better ways to diagnose lung cancer.

Encouraging at-risk people to get LDCT can help the odds of detecting lung cancer in its earlier, more treatable stages, and University of Illinois College of Medicine Rockford researchers are currently promoting LDCT screening to area physicians and long-term smokers as part of a lung cancer study. The researchers are also searching for clues called biomarkers that can be used to detect lung cancer before it becomes late-stage and difficult to treat. This could lead to more accessible screening tools that could help doctors detect lung cancer early for better patient prognosis.

“What if a simple blood test could detect lung cancer making it easier and more affordable for patients to access? What if the test could give doctors information about the prognosis of the patient that does have lung cancer and what therapies will be effective in the patient? Those are the questions we are trying to answer,” says Neelu Puri, PhD, an associate professor in the University of Illinois College of Medicine Rockford Department of Biomedical Sciences, who leads lung cancer research.

More than 4,500 Rockford-area residents have been screened since 2015 when Puri and her team began collaborating with area hospitals to promote LDCT. Of those, about 1,400 had nodules in their lungs that are being followed by their physicians and 81 of them were found to actually have lung cancer. The good news is more than half of these cases were in the early, more treatable stages and those patients can help the researchers in their quest for methods to detect lung cancer even earlier.

“Some of our research is showing that the tumor biomarkers we analyze are associated with the prognosis of patients and late stage lung cancer,” says Dr. Puri. “This could lead to better treatment of the most aggressive forms of cancer and identification of potential pathways that could be targeted for non-small cell lung cancer.”

A previous study conducted by the Rockford researchers that included UICOMR medical students and students in the Master of Science in Medical Biotechnology Program on lung tumor biomarkers was published in the journal Therapeutic Advances in Medical Oncology.

Research reported here was supported by the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health under award number R21CA158965-01A1 and recent awards this year from Community Foundation of Northern Illinois (Grant ID: I3736) and a Community Outreach and Engagement Seed Grant from the University of Illinois Cancer Center.