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, immune checkpoint modulators, 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. In NSCLC, checkpoint inhibitors are being studied that target the PD-L1 protein on the surface of cancer cells. In SCLC, a checkpoint inhibitor that targets CTLA-4 is undergoing trials.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. Women seem to be more susceptible to developing lung cancer but less likely to die from it. Research continues into determining why women may be more susceptible to the disease – including looking at the role of estrogen – 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: October 2018.
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