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Lung Cancer Can Remain Dormant for 20 Years

First Posted: Oct 11, 2014 05:05 AM EDT

A new U.K. study reveals that lung cancer can remain inactive for almost 20 years before suddenly appearing as an aggressive form of the disease.

Lung cancer is known as the leading type of deadly cancer among U.S. men and women, and the second most common cancer diagnosed in the U.S. Cigarette smoking is listed as the leading cause of lung cancer, which can also be caused by using other types of tobacco. The American Cancer Society estimates that in the United States, for the year 2014, there will be about 224,210 new cases of lung cancer and nearly 159,260 deaths from it. This disease accounts for 27 percent of all cancer deaths.

The latest study, conducted by the Cancer Research UK's London Research Institute and the UCL Cancer Institute, found that lung cancer can remain hidden for over 20 years. This was based on the study conducted on lung cancers from seven patients that included smokers, ex-smokers and never smokers.

Professor Nic Jones, Cancer Research UK's chief scientist, said: "This fascinating research highlights the need to find better ways to detect lung cancer earlier when it's still following just one evolutionary path. 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..."

It was noticed that after the first genetic mistake that triggered cancer, it can continue to exist undetected for several years until the novel additional defect triggers the rapid growth of the disease. It is during this expansion a sudden gush of different genetic faults that appear in separate region of the tumors. Each of the different sections comes from various paths indicating that every part of the tumor is genetically unique.

This study shows the need for advanced method to detect the disease earlier. Nearly two-thirds of the patients are being diagnosed with advanced form of cancers during which treatment is not successful. Based on this finding, the researchers hope for some improvement in the early detection of the disease.

Study author Professor Charles Swanton, at Cancer Research UK's London Research Institute and the UCL Cancer Institute, said: "Survival from lung cancer remains devastatingly low with many new targeted treatments making a limited impact on the disease. 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 finding was documented in Science today.

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