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Emerging Research and Future Treatment Directions

Lung cancer is the number one cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States. Researchers continue to look for strategies to prevent lung cancer, new ways to diagnose and detect lung cancer in its earliest, most treatable stages, and new approaches to treat lung cancer.

Areas of research

Some of the areas in which research is currently being conducted in lung cancer include:

Targeted therapy for non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC)

Targeted therapy is a treatment that specifically interacts with certain molecules on the cancer cells. These are also known as molecular targets. The targets are found by looking at the genetic mutations in the lung cancer cells or the proteins that are made by cancer cells. In non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), some of the molecular targets identified are EGFR (epidermal growth factor receptor), ALK (anaplastic lymphoma kinase) gene, MET (met proto-oncogene), and PI3K. Many of the drugs being researched and some drugs that have recently been approved for treatment work to fight the cancer by blocking these pathways.1,2

Targeted therapy for small cell lung cancer (SCLC)

Small cell lung cancer (SCLC) is an aggressive disease. Although chemotherapy is highly effective in treating SCLC, there is a high chance the cancer may return (recurrence). Currently, there are no targeted therapies that are approved for use in SCLC. Researchers are studying new drugs to act on molecular targets, such as DNA damage response inhibitors, and antibody-drug conjugates, all of which are showing promise in SCLC.3


Immunotherapy is a treatment that aims to boost the body’s own immune system to fight cancer cells. In the immune system, the white blood cells, called T-cells, are responsible for fighting infections or cancer cells. However, cancer cells can sometimes develop ways to stop or slow the body’s normal T-cell response. There are different types of immunotherapy: monoclonal antibodies, checkpoint inhibitors, therapeutic vaccines, and adoptive T-cell transfer. Some immunotherapies are now available to treat certain patients with NSCLC and SCLC, and research continues in this area.4,5

Gender differences in lung cancer

Although the overall incidence of lung cancer has been declining, incidence of lung cancer in women is decreasing at a slower rate compared to men. Men seem to be more susceptible to developing lung cancer and more likely to die from it. Research continues into determining why certain patients may be more susceptible to the disease – including looking at the role of estrogen in female patients – and to determine why men generally respond worse to treatment, as compared to women.6,7

Enrolling in clinical trials

Clinical trials are a type of research that tests new treatments, usually in comparison to the current standard treatment.  Generally, a patient enrolled in a research study will receive either standard treatment alone, or standard treatment plus research treatment. If a treatment is proven to be safe and effective through clinical trials, it may become widely available as a new treatment option. Patients can enroll in clinical trials to gain access to the most current cancer treatment and participate in the research process, which may help other patients in the future. Patients in clinical trials receive excellent care and are carefully monitored throughout treatment. However, there are risks to clinical trials, including possible side effects, the chance that new tests or treatments won’t work, and the potential for additional paperwork and trips to the doctor or hospital.8

Patients who are interested in joining a clinical trial must meet the conditions of the study. Studies look for certain characteristics among participants, for example tumor type, previous treatments tried, and/or age of the patient. Clinical trials can be found through a physician, hospital, or the National Cancer Institute’s website.2,8

Written by: Emily Downward | Last reviewed: January 2020.
  1. Schettino C, Bareschino MA, Sacco PC, Maione P, Rossi A, Casaluce F, Sgambato A, Gridelli C. New molecular targets in the treatment of NSCLC. Curr Pharm Des. 2013;19(3):5333-43.
  2. National Cancer Institute. Accessed online on 8/22/16 at
  3. Sharp A, Bhosie J, Abdelraouf F, Popat S, O’Brien M, Yap TA. Development of molecularly targeted agents and immunotherapies in small cell lung cancer. Eur J Cancer. 2016 Jun;60:26-39. doi: 10.1016/j.ejca.2016.03.004.
  4. Cancer Care. Accessed online on 8/22/16 at
  5. IMSH Institute Global Oncology Trend Report: A Review of 2015 and Outlook to 2020. Accessed online at
  6. SEER Cancer Statistics Factsheets: Lung and Bronchus Cancer. National Cancer Institute. Bethesda, MD. Accessed online on 8/1/16 at
  7. Chakraborty S, Ganti AK, Marr A, Batra SK. Lung cancer in women: role of estrogens. Expert Rev Respir Med. 2010 Aug;4(4):509-518. doi: 10.1586/ers.10.50.
  8. NCCN Guidelines for Patients. Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer. Version 1.2015. Accessed April 11, 2016 at: