Lung Cancer: Challenges and Reasons for Hope

A Point of View by Dr. Gregory Lubiniecki, Director, Oncology Clinical Research, Merck Research Labs

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Dr. Lubiniecki, like many Merck physicians, continues to see patients. This is his personal perspective.

As every oncologist knows, it’s cancer’s unpredictability that makes the disease such a challenge. When we discover ways to block one route of tumor growth, cancer cells figure out another way to grow, spread, and potentially kill.

And among cancer types, lung cancer is a particularly elusive target.

The reason is biological. Researchers blame lung cancer’s high “mutational load.” In other words, lung cancer changes so quickly that finding consistent ways to destroy it is often a lost cause. And so the outcome is sobering: Lung cancer kills more people than colon, breast and prostate cancers – combined. This is a reality for those of us who treat lung cancer patients on a daily basis.

Although these statistics are disheartening, I do believe we live in a hopeful time. When I see patients who know they are facing a difficult journey, they often want to know what their options are. As a physician and researcher, it is my goal to help patients identify the best path forward, and ideally, contribute to the development of new options that may help in their treatment. As recently as a few years ago, patients would have been severely limited in their choices. Now, there are multiple paths forward.

Our understanding of the biology of lung cancer has taken leaps that allow us to help predict, with much greater precision, which drugs will have the greatest likelihood of success for which patients. Some lung tumors are vulnerable, for a time, because they were set in motion by a single mutation – referred to as a driver mutation – that can be more precisely targeted.

So while there is still much to be done, we are also making strides. It’s progress like this that allows us to continue to have hope. Companies such as Merck understand how enormous the unmet need has been in lung cancer. Our own lives have been touched, and sometimes devastated, by the disease. Our passion towards finding new ways to manage the disease continues, one step, one patient, one breakthrough, at a time.