A new study from researchers at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) is good news for people diagnosed with the most common type of lung cancer, non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). The study finds that new, genetic-based treatments are improving survival rates.

Since 1990-2000, reduction in the use of tobacco has caused a steady decline in the number of people diagnosed with NSCLC as well as the other common type of lung cancer, small-cell lung cancer (SCLC). The number of people diagnosed with a disease is called the disease incidence. Now, for the first time, deaths from NSCLC are declining even faster than NSCLC incidence.

The NCI researchers believe that the decline in deaths is due to better treatments available only for NSCLC, treatments that target specific genetic changes in the cancer’s tumors. The researchers used statistics from NCI’s Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results cancer registry. Their key findings are reported in The New England Journal of Medicine:

  • From 2013 through 2016, the yearly death rate for NSCLC decreased by 6.3%.
  • Two-year survival rates for NSCLC increased from 26% for people diagnosed in 2001 to 35% for people diagnosed in 2014.
  • The increased survival rate corresponds to the time period when genetic testing and genetic-based treatments became available for NSCLC.
  • Although a decrease in smoking reduced the incidence of both NSCLC and SCLC, there has not been an increase in the two-year survival for SCLC.

People with NSCLC are now routinely checked for genetic tumor mutations that enable tumors to grow, called epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) and anaplastic lymphoma kinase (ALK). People with EGFR or ALK-positive tumors can be treated with drugs that inhibit these genes.

The researchers expect to see an even better reduction in death rates for NSCLC with a type of cancer drug called an immune checkpoint inhibitor. This drug takes the brakes off a person’s immune system, giving it more power to attack and destroy tumor cells. Since NSCLC accounts for 76% of all lung cancers, these trends are good news for a disease that has been the number one cause of cancer deaths for men and women.

Source: Study titled “The Effect of Advances in Lung-Cancer Treatment on Population Mortality,” by researchers at National Cancer Institute, published in The New England Journal of Medicine.