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Creating new strategies to detect lung cancer in non-smokers

In 2022, an estimated 30,000 people were diagnosed with lung cancer in Canada, making it the most diagnosed cancer in the country. It was also responsible for one in four cancer-related deaths, making it the deadliest cancer in the country.  

In the past, smoking has been the leading cause of lung cancer, but that may soon change. In fact, even though lung cancer rates in Canada are generally declining alongside smoking rates, lung cancer rates among people who have not smoked a cigarette in their life are increasing. As this dangerous trend becomes more apparent, researchers are shifting their focus toward its most likely culprit: air pollution.  

To address this emerging issue, Drs. Stephen Lam, distinguished scientist at BC Cancer and professor of medicine at the University of British Columbia (UBC), and William Lockwood, senior scientist at BC Cancer and assistant professor (pathology and laboratory medicine) at UBC, will co-lead a team of experts in a new Terry Fox New Frontiers Program Project seeking to improve the prevention, detection and treatment of lung cancer among individuals who have never smoked but may be at high risk due to exposure to air pollution.

“With a growing and urbanizing world population and climate change, this program project addresses an urgent need to better understand how our environment impacts lung cancer development and progression,” says Dr. Lam. “We will use the funds to assemble a multi-disciplinary team of experts to study the effects of outdoor air pollutants and identify how they cause damage and promote the development of lung cancer in people who have never smoked. This in turn will allow us to develop interventions to detect and prevent lung cancer at an early stage and treat more effectively.” 

The team, which has long been supported by the TFRI, will receive $2.4 million over four years to use multi-ethnic datasets from around the world to build a lung cancer risk prediction model for non-smokers, which could help identify high-risk individuals and inform future screening protocols for at-risk groups.  

As part of the project, they will also identify changes in the lung microbiome – the collection of bacteria that live within our lungs – to create an innovative, non-invasive breath test for early lung cancer detection. 

“Previous support by the Terry Fox Research Institute enabled us to do the research and translate the findings to implement lung cancer screening programs across Canada for people who have smoked heavily in the past. In fact, the knowledge we gained from the previous grant is already benefitting lung cancer patients around the world today with CT scan screening shown to reduce lung cancer mortality by more than 20 per cent,” explains Dr. Lam. “It is our hope that findings from this new team grant will expand the benefits of early detection and prevention to a wider population by including those who have never smoked.” 

Funding for this new New Frontiers Program Project Grant in The Environment and Lung Cancer is provided equally by the Terry Fox Foundation and the Lotte & John Hecht Memorial Foundation.