Improving the Odds Against Lung Cancer

Last Updated on October 20, 2015 at 9:17 am

By Nadia M. Whitehead

UTEP News Service

For many, lung cancer is diagnosed too late.

“About 85 percent of people diagnosed with lung cancer will die of that condition,” said Mutombo Kankonde, M.D., referring to the most fatal cancer in the United States.

Mutombo Kankonde, M.D. (left), a local El Paso oncologist, and Jianying Zhang, Ph.D., a cancer biologist at UTEP, are working together to develop a test for the early detection of lung cancer. Photo courtesy of Dr. Kankonde.

Mutombo Kankonde, M.D. (left), a local El Paso oncologist, and Jianying Zhang, Ph.D., a cancer biologist at UTEP, are working together to develop a test for the early detection of lung cancer. Photo courtesy of Dr. Kankonde.

Those striking statistics — more people die of lung cancer each year than of colon, breast and prostate cancer combined — are what compelled Kankonde to study the disease and recently assemble a team of local scientists to develop a test to detect lung cancer much earlier.

“I haven’t done much work on lung cancer myself, but I have been able to identify biomarkers of liver cancer,” said Jianying Zhang, Ph.D., a biologist at The University of Texas at El Paso who forms part of the research team. “Dr. Kankonde knows this and wants to apply the same approach that I used in my lab to detect lung cancer earlier.”

Lung cancer is currently diagnosed after a CT scan, MRI or chest X-ray — when the tumor has already become visible as a mass in the lung and is at an advanced stage.

“If we use that sort of technology for diagnosis, it’s usually too late for the patient,” Zhang said. “That’s why we want to find a way to identify the cancer before there’s a tumor.”

In an effort to develop a breakthrough kit that detects lung cancer with either blood or saliva samples, Zhang, the oncologist, and Brad Bryan, Ph.D., a biomedical scientist at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, are studying 50 lung cancer tissue samples and the genes that compose them for phase one of the project.

The specialists are searching for three particular cancer-related genes in the tissue that have been associated with lung cancer at an early stage.

“We want to know, ‘What is the frequency of these gene abnormalities in these known lung cancer samples?’” said Kankonde, who is interested in the genetics of cancer.

If the genes are overexpressed in the tissue samples, as the team suspects they will be, they can be used as biomarkers, or early indicators of the disease.

The next phase of the project would be to develop a test kit that can detect the specific cancer-related genes in a patient’s blood or saliva, and test the diagnostic method on frequent smokers — who are at the highest risk for lung cancer. If a smoker tests positive for the genes, he or she would undergo a PET scan to see if a tumor is present.

“This has the potential to achieve cancer intervention at an early stage,” Zhang said. “In this way, the patient can still survive and have surgery done before it’s too late.”

If the team’s research is successful, they’ll eventually be able to put their test kit on the market for doctors to use on patients who are at risk for lung cancer.

Kankonde added that another team objective is to determine which lung cancers are sensitive to Avastin, a standard drug used to reduce the size of lung tumors.

Not all patients respond to the drug, and Kankonde believes this also may be linked to a patient’s particular genetics.

“We want to identify genetically why some patients are sensitive to Avastin and why some are not,” he said.

If they can determine and validate the gene that causes a reaction, doctors could potentially determine whether Avastin will be a worthwhile treatment for a patient with lung cancer on a case-by-case basis.

Kankonde, who operates his own oncology clinic in El Paso, says he has positive expectations for the outcome of the study.

If he’s right, he may well be applying the tests in his own clinic one day.


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