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Lung Cancers Can Stay Secret for Over 20 Years

Oct 10, 2014 01:59 PM EDT

Lung cancer is like the creature in the night, watching and waiting until it's ready to attack. This deadly disease can stay secret in your body for over 20 years before it turns into its aggressive form, according to new research.

This surprising finding highlights the need for better ways to detect the disease earlier.

Over 40,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with lung cancer each year, and despite advancement in treatment, fewer than 10 percent survive for at least five years after diagnosis. What's more, two-thirds of patients are diagnosed with advanced forms of the disease when treatments are less likely to be successful.

"Survival from lung cancer remains devastatingly low with many new targeted treatments making a limited impact on the disease," study author Charles Swanton said in a statement. "By understanding how it develops we've opened up the disease's evolutionary rule book in the hope that we can start to predict its next steps."

The research - jointly funded by Cancer Research UK and the Rosetrees Trust - studied lung cancers from seven patients, including smokers, ex-smokers, and those who have never smoked. They found that after the first genetic mistakes that cause the cancer, it stay hidden for years until new, additional, faults trigger rapid growth of the disease.

As lung cancer becomes more and more aggressive in the body, there is a surge of different genetic faults that appear in separate areas of the tumor. Each distinct section evolves down different paths - meaning that every part of the tumor is genetically unique. This is what makes treating lung cancer so difficult. It's only effective if it targets those parts of the tumor with that fault, while other areas can persist, thrive and take over.

"This fascinating research highlights the need to find better ways to detect lung cancer earlier when it's still following just one evolutionary path," said Professor Nic Jones, Cancer Research UK's chief scientist. "If we can nip the disease in the bud and treat it before it has started travelling down different evolutionary routes we could make a real difference in helping more people survive the disease."

The findings were published in the journal Science.

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