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Overview

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death for both men and women in the United States. Cancer researchers estimated that more than 135,000 American would die of lung cancer in 2020. Metastatic lung cancer has an 85 percent mortality rate within five years of diagnosis.

Lung cancers usually fall into two categories: small cell and non-small cell. Small cell lung cancer is a faster-growing form of the disease. According to the American Cancer Society, SCLC tends to respond well to chemotherapy and radiation, but the cancer will return for most people. Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) is more common but tends to grow more slowly than SCLC. Types of NSCLC include adenocarcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.

Lung cancer tends to affect people over the age of 60. Smoking is the biggest risk factor—and it contributes to 80 percent and 90 percent of lung cancer deaths in women and men, respectively. According to a U.S. Surgeon General report, second-hand smoke leads to approximately 7,330 lung cancer deaths among nonsmokers every year.

Lung cancer is often deadly because tumors are not caught early enough. Once tumors are diagnosed, they are often inoperable or have already metastasized. Better diagnostics and more effective therapies are desperately needed in the field.

Our Approach

Researchers at La Jolla Institute for Immunology (LJI) are studying ways to harness the immune system to halt lung cancer growth.

LJI Professor Catherine Hedrick, Ph.D., has shown that a type of white blood cells, called “patrolling monocytes,” play an anti-cancer role in the lung. In a 2015 Science study, the Hedrick Lab reported that these monocytes can directly block lung metastasis by detecting and destroying tumor cells before the tumor cells can invade new tissues. The next step in this research is to develop immunotherapies that might increase the number or activity of patrolling monocytes in lung cancer patients.

LJI Professor Pandurangan Vijayanand, M.D., Ph.D., is investigating how immunotherapies could take aim at lung cancer. In a 2017 Nature study, his lab showed that certain anti-tumor cells called cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTLs) have molecular features associated with a robust anti-tumor immune response. This study defined the “molecular fingerprint” of tumor-infiltrating CTLs and identified potentially new targets for immunotherapy.

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