Test might help detect lung cancer earlier

WASHINGTON — Scientists may have found a way to tell which smokers are at highest risk of developing lung cancer: measuring a telltale genetic change inside their windpipes.

A test based on the research is being developed in hopes of detecting this deadly cancer earlier, when it's more treatable.

And if the work pans out, the next big question is: Might it even be possible to reverse this genetic chain reaction before it ends in full-blown cancer? The researchers found a tantalizing early hint among a handful of people given an experimental drug.

"They're heading toward lung cancer, and we can identify them with this genomic test," said Avrum Spira of Boston University School of Medicine, who led the research published Wednesday in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

Lung cancer — which killed nearly 160,000 Americans last year — is the leading cancer killer, and cigarette smoke is by far its main cause. Yet, not all smokers develop lung cancer; Spira cites estimates that 10 to 20 percent will. The risk depends in part on how much people smoke, for how long and how long ago they quit — but there's no way to predict who will escape it and who will not. Nor is there a good way to detect early-stage tumors. Consequently, most people are diagnosed too late for today's treatments to do much good.