Dr. Jason Chien of the Hutchinson Center's Clinical Research Division recently received a one-year, $75,000 grant from the Department of Defense Lung Cancer Research Program to study mouth cells as a possible biomarker for lung cancer.
Chien and others have found evidence suggesting that genetic changes in the cells inside the mouth hold promise for assessing lung cancer risk. With his new funding, he will evaluate DNA obtained from patients with and without lung cancer to identify differences that can be used to develop a lung cancer risk test.
“This funding is exciting because it allows us to explore the oral mucosa—an area that has received little attention—as a source of biomarkers for lung cancer,” said Chien, who is also an associate professor in the University of Washington’s Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care. “This work has the potential to develop a simple test for risk stratifying patients either at risk for lung cancer or who have suspicious lung abnormalities.”
Chien plans to work closely with the Public Health Sciences Division’s Dr. Emily White, who has collected swabs of the inner cheeks of nearly 70,000 individuals in the VITAL study.
Chien said the challenges of early detection of lung cancer are unique from other cancers because of the enormous size of the at-risk population, the extensive growth of the cancer before symptoms are apparent, and current imaging-based screening methods, which are too sensitive and not adequately specific.
While studies of current screening methods have found more early stage detection, such screening was not cost effective for such a large at-risk population, nor did it reduce mortality. Chien hopes his research could lead to a two-stage screening process, where a first, inexpensive screening test like the one he is developing could identify individuals who might benefit from a second, more costly and intensive screening test.