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B.C. Terry Fox researcher to determine if there are adverse effects in screening for lung cancer

February 04, 2016

It has been shown that regular screening of patients at high-risk for developing lung cancer reduces their chance of dying from it by up to 20 per cent. But is there a drawback to screening? Does low-dose computed tomographic (LDCT) emitted radiation cause long-term harm?

TFRI New Investigator Dr. William Lockwood, a scientist at the BC Cancer Agency, hopes to answer this important question with a $450,000 research award from TFRI.

Will Lockwood“What we’re interested in is the potential risk factors that could be involved with cumulative screening,” he explains. “The radiation that is accumulated over time may actually have some adverse effects that could affect cancer outcomes in a patient that would be at a high-risk of lung cancer.”

In Canada, lung cancer kills over 20,000 people annually, and is the primary cause of cancer deaths. With early detection, however, five-year survival rates can be over 70 per cent.

Yet the high-risk participants involved in TFRI’s pan-Canadian early-detection lung cancer study (which concluded in 2015) aren’t “normal” people who are healthy and don’t smoke, notes Dr. Lockwood. Many already have some abnormal cells in their lungs.

“When you wish to implement a program where people ages 55 and over who are high-risk individuals that have smoked a lot and should be screened yearly, we don’t really know what will happen over 25 years of screening,” he said, noting that many patients worry about potential harm from low doses of radiation administered over decades. 

“At the end of this, if it doesn’t have an effect, than we can tell our patients that they shouldn’t be worried about it – because it is something that people worry about.”

The study will analyze tumours from mice exposed to similar levels of radiation, then compare them with human tumours and non-tumour lung tissues from patients who underwent multiple rounds of LDCT screening to see if the radiation contributes to cancer development by causing similar gene disruptions.  

Dr. Lockwood is excited to work under the mentorship of senior scientists who are experts in the field, such as his sponsor Dr. Stephen Lam, chair of BC’s Provincial Lung Tumour Group at the BC Cancer Agency and a professor of medicine at the University of British Columbia, who led TFRI’s Pan-Canadian Early Lung Cancer Detection Study.

“I was ecstatic - it’s an exciting opportunity for me to get to work more with other people across Canada who will really allow me to branch out into different areas of research over time,” he said. “I think it’s a unique opportunity that a lot of other funding agencies don’t have, so I’m appreciative of that and what it’s allowing me to do.”

Dr. Lam has known Dr. Lockwood since he was a graduate student. He’s impressed with how the researcher’s work has progressed.

“[His extensive] training has allowed him to address extremely complicated research questions with a unique set of research and knowledge base, an insatiable curiosity, and an exemplary drive to produce data of the highest quality,” said Dr. Lam. “Dr. Lockwood is very clearly an internationally recognized young investigator with a very bright future in contributing to the lung cancer research community.”

Project Title: Assessing the effect of radiation from screening low dose CT scans on lung cancer development and progression
Award: $450,000
Mentoring Program: Early Detection of Lung Cancer: A Pan-Canadian Study
Mentors/PIs: Dr. Stephen Lam

Related Patient Story: 

Pierre Lavigueur: http://www.tfri.ca/en/OurWork/patient-stories/pierre-lavigueur

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