Beijing conference to address lung cancer crisis in China

By Eve Harris

The first international lung cancer conference to be held in China will take researchers to Beijing October 27-30. UCSF, in collaboration with the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center and the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, is sponsoring the event.

UCSF researchers will be presenting their work on targeted therapies, genomics and other leading-edge science. The conference is designed to educate the medical community both in China and worldwide on the latest available therapies for patients with lung cancer.

Lung cancer is at epidemic proportions in China—and the worst is yet to come, according to the World Health Organization, which has recently published The Tobacco Atlas. It is estimated that by 2025, two million Chinese men will die annually from smoking. Lung cancer currently kills 283,031 people in China each year. Although the rate for women is much lower, 61 percent of Chinese men over age 15 smoke.

“We will discuss the most sophisticated approaches to lung cancer in the world,” said David Jablons, MD, UCSF associate professor of surgery and program leader of the UCSF Thoracic Oncology Program. “Both the scope of the problem and the barriers to care in China are dramatic, but we hope this conference can help rally the international scientific community to address the crisis.”

Jablons, who conducts translational research into targeted cancer therapies, is director of the UCSF Thoracic Oncology Laboratory.

Although innovations in treatment are necessary, “prevention is always the bottom line,” Jablons said. One survey found that 60 percent of Chinese adults did not know smoking can cause lung cancer. Chinese efforts to educate the public are underfunded, he said, noting that one program - the Chinese Association on Smoking and Health - has a total annual budget of $3000. Cigarettes are both imported and domestically produced in China. For any manufacturer, China constitutes a huge market.  It is estimated that one in three cigarettes worldwide is smoked there.

After prevention, Jablons said the best strategy for reducing lung cancer deaths is early detection. Detection by x-ray screening usually identifies cancers beyond their early, more treatable stages, he said. And although a national trial of a newer imaging technology—spiral computerized tomography, or CT scan—begins this year at 30 sites including UCSF, it will be many years until the results can be demonstrated.

“New markers and new methods for the very early detection of lung cancer are crucial to improve the prognosis of patients with lung cancer,” said UCSF researcher Liang You, MD, PhD.  In Beijing, You will discuss his search for genetic markers that could make early detection of lung cancer feasible.

Leaders in lung cancer research, like their colleagues studying other types of cancer, seek to identify genetic variations that may suggest which treatment will be most effective for which patient. Zhidong Xu, PhD, UCSF assistant adjunct professor of surgery will discuss the promise of his findings for classifying cancer based on molecular characteristics. Xu uses microarray technology to simultaneously analyze tens of thousands of genes, comparing tumor genes to normal genes and creating “genetic profiles” of distinct types of cancer.

Jablons, with co-author and fellow UCSF scientist Biao He, PhD, will discuss recent findings about the Wnt signaling pathway. Wnt signaling likely plays an important role in lung cancer, they said, and modulating this signaling pathway could be useful in cancer treatment.

Chinese officials who will attend and present at the conference include Shu-Jun Cheng, MD, the chief executive scientist of the Chinese National Key Basic Research Program of Cancer, a program analogous to the National Cancer Institute in the US.

The UCSF Thoracic Oncology program provides care for patients with both straightforward and highly complex thoracic surgical problems as well as an active Thoracic Oncology Research Laboratory dedicated to exploring the molecular carcinogensis of mesothelioma, lung cancer, esophageal and other thoracic malignancies. The Laboratory’s effort is primarily translational in nature with the intent to bring advances from the laboratory to clinical application. Its scientists focus on genomic analysis of lung cancer and mesothelioma and application of gene therapy and oncolytic viral gene therapy for these malignancies.

UCSF is one of 30 centers in a National Cancer Institute (NCI) study launched last month to determine if screening people with either CT scan or chest x-ray before they have symptoms can reduce deaths from lung cancer. 

The National Lung Screening Trial (NLST) will enroll 50,000 current and former smokers.  Study participants will be randomly assigned to receive either a chest X-ray or a CT once a year for three years. Researchers will continue to contact participants annually to monitor their health until 2009.