Efforts are being made to develop more effective personalised treatments for lung cancer. A risk project led by cancer researcher Emmy Verschuren and funded by the Academy of Finland aims to identify effective treatments against certain subtypes of lung cancer detected in patients. It explores whether reliable information can be obtained from cancer tissue quickly enough to enable the selection of the most suitable treatment for an individual patient.
Relatively little fundamental research on lung cancer is carried out in Finland, despite the fact that it is the most frequently diagnosed cancer type. Due to its high incidence, lung cancer is a significant health and economic burden for society, particularly the ageing section of the population.
“Around 90% of lung cancers are caused by smoking. The disease is therefore unique, since most of the related fatalities are preventable. Due to high carcinogen exposures, lung cancers are very different from one another, highly aggressive and hard to treat. Treatment cannot be delayed for too long – hopefully, our research will provide the basis for matching patients with just the right treatment,” says Verschuren.
Patient treatment takes centre-stage in cancer research
Verschuren’s research team develops proof-of-concept studies to explore the possibilities of using cultured cancer cells for routine diagnostics. The extensive research infrastructure of the University of Helsinki Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland (FIMM), which bridges basic research with patient care, is critical for the project.
“Our shared goal is to help cancer research focus more directly on patient treatment,” explains Verschuren.
The research team uses mouse models that develop disease resembling the key biological characteristics of human lung cancer. They are testing the effectiveness of different drugs on a range of models derived from animal tumours.
“We are focusing on treatments that affect frequently altered biological functions, such as signal transduction and immune cell functions, which are key determinants of lung cancer prognosis. This allows us to identify treatments that can be effective against specific subtypes of cancer,” comments Verschuren.
Bringing research and health care closer together
Verschuren points out that lung cancer specialists routinely use genetic profiling to identify the mutations that drive a particular cancer, and thus guides the choice of treatment.
“However, due to their complexity, deeper functional tests are not yet in clinical use. Biologists like us are reaching out to offer the clinics a research infrastructure that enables the planning of personalised treatments. This will allow us to narrow the gap between research and personalised health care,” she says.
According to Verschuren, her research team has a unique opportunity to evaluate both the cost and health benefits of this new direction in clinical science.
“If our study shows that diagnostic research will not markedly improve prognoses compared to currently provided treatments, it means that future research should shift towards lung cancer prevention,” she adds.
The research will be useful regardless of the outcome
Verschuren is aware of the risks involved in the research project she is leading. For example, the biological characteristics of cancer tissue can change significantly when cells are removed from the body.
She also views the possible lack of a basis for direct comparison between results obtained from mice and cancer in humans as a risk, given the differences between species. However, she sees great potential in the study and believes that the research will provide valuable information independently of its outcome.
“Our project aims to reveal both the power and limitations of the lung cancer models used in laboratories, improving the models and thereby promoting advances in personalised health care. We will transfer patient samples and associated data collected during the project to the biobank. This will create a valuable research resource, regardless of whether or not we achieve clinical benefits for the treated lung cancer patients,” comments Verschuren.
Verschuren points out that it is vital that funding models are developed to support researchers tackling questions in important yet challenging or underexplored areas.
“The risk-project funding approach is a prime example of such a model,” she concludes.
Text by Anna-Riikka Oravakangas
Picture by Anita Westerback