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Pilot study weighs lung cancer screening for early detection

November 26, 2015

CALGARY – Researchers in Calgary and Edmonton have launched a lung cancer screening study to determine the best criteria for catching the deadly disease while it’s still treatable.

Funded by the Alberta Cancer Foundation, the study seeks to identify the smokers and ex-smokers most at risk for lung cancer, and then screen them yearly for three years using low-dose CT (computed tomography) scans.

Alberta Health Services (AHS) supports the research by providing access in its facilities to CT scanners and the staff who operate them, as well as by offering the support of the AlbertaQuits.ca smoking cessation program.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death for both men and women, but most cases are only identified at an advanced stage when treatments rarely result in a cure. There are currently no other jurisdictions in Canada that offer a systematic lung cancer screening program.

“Unfortunately, by the time people start to experience symptoms for lung cancer, it is often too late,” says Dr. Alain Tremblay, the Calgary-based principal investigator in the study.

“Screening has the potential to reduce the number of deaths, but the challenge is to determine who is most at risk,” says Dr. Tremblay, also a professor of medicine at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine.

Researchers will consider a number of factors, including smoking history, family history of cancer, educational level, demographic information and ethnic group to determine an individual’s risk of developing lung cancer. Screening is more likely to benefit participants if their risk meets a set minimum threshold based on an assessment of those factors.

Dr. Eric Bédard, AHS Edmonton Zone section head for thoracic surgery and site lead for the study in Edmonton, notes CT screening can sometimes result in false positives or, in other words, produce findings that look suspicious and must be investigated, but on further testing turn out to be nothing.

“We want to create a screening program that will enable us to catch the disease at its early stages, when it’s potentially curable,” says Dr. Bédard, also an associate professor with the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry at the University of Alberta.

“Identifying those most at risk for lung cancer is one of the key tasks ahead of us. We don’t want to expose Albertans at no or low risk to unnecessary diagnostic testing. This research is helping us to refine that criteria.”

Sites in both Calgary and Edmonton began recruiting study participants earlier this year.

To date, screening has already identified one patient with an early stage lung cancer called adenocarcinoma, which has been successfully removed with surgery.

“We know the importance of being able to detect cancer at an early stage and have committed to raise $2.5 million for this pilot research project so we can implement a sustainable program in Alberta,” says Myka Osinchuk, CEO of the Alberta Cancer Foundation.

“The fact these researchers have already detected lung cancer this early into the project shows the immediate impact this investment is having on Alberta cancer patients.”

An additional goal of the study is to determine the actual cost and health care resources required to establish a provincewide lung cancer screening program.

Between 85 and 90 per cent of all lung cancers occur in current smokers or ex-smokers; as more people quit smoking, the numbers of cases among ex-smokers is rising. Lung cancer can also occur in never-smokers but, at this time, researchers believe the risk is too low to justify screening in this group.

Calgarian Mark Kost, a 60-year-old who has smoked for 40 years, says he signed up for the study, in part, because of the smoking cessation counselling that study participants also receive.

“I want to be around for many years to come to spend time with my family,” Kost says.

“I’d also like to taste a really good cheeseburger again and enjoy it.”

Researchers are looking to enrol a total of 800 people in the study. Smokers and ex-smokers between the ages of 55 and 80 might be eligible. You can find out more and download a copy of the screening questionnaire at www.ucalgary.ca/lungscreening  or call the study office at 403-210-6862 or 1-844-210-6862.

More information and study updates are also available on the Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/AlbertaLungScreening

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For media inquiries
Greg Harris
AHS Communications
403-943-2911 (office)
403-619-3108 (cell)