Nose Swabs Could One Day Detect Lung Cancer

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Nose Swabs Could One Day Detect Lung Cancer

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    Dolly Mehta
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Lung Cancer: Prevalence and Cause 


The lung, an organ of the respiratory system, aids people in breathing through an automatic process of gas exchange. That is, bringing in oxygen (inhalation) and taking out carbon dioxide (exhalation). It’s estimated that 1 in 12 Canadians will develop the deadly disease at one point in their life. Specifically: 1 in 12 men and 1 in 15 women. 400 deaths per week, on average, will result. Unfortunately, despite the public being well aware of the negative effects of smoking, which is responsible for 85% of all lung cancers and 30% of all cancer deaths, lung cancer still remains as the primary cause of cancer - even more common than breast, colorectal and prostate cancers combined.  


The primary cause of LC is smoking. When you smoke, you introduce a number of carcinogenic substances into your lungs and over time damage to those cells becomes irreparable. Disturbingly, lung cancer can also arise in people who don’t smoke and have never been exposed to secondhand smoke. The reason for this though is unclear.  


Lung Cancer: Development and Detection 


Like all cancers, lung cancer develops when there is a mutation in previously healthy lung cells. Unfortunately, when cells become mutated they no longer follow normal cell cycles (i.e. they do not die when they should). Mutated cells thus continue to multiply and cause tumors, neoplasms or lesions. When the cancer originates from the lung, it is called lung cancer.  


A commonly used way to diagnose if someone has lung cancer is through imaging tests (CT scans). The problem with CT scans, however, is that it can’t find benign abnormal growths. So if a person does have the disease, CT scans can in fact miss such growths and once the cancer is detected, it can be too late. Another way of diagnosing lung cancer is sputum cytology (sputum is analyzed under the microscope) and biopsies (abnormal tissue samples are taken surgically).  


The Nose: Detecting More than Just Smells 


Recent research has shown that nose swabs can confirm the presence of lung cancer. Dr. Avrum Spira at Boston University Medical Center reports: “given that bronchial and nasal epithelial gene expressions are similarly altered by cigarette smoke exposure, we sought to determine in this study if cancer-associated gene expression might also be detectable in the more readily accessible nasal epithelium”. So what did Dr. Spira and colleagues find? Apparently the new approach is “measurably improving lung cancer diagnosis”.  


Interestingly though, it’s necessary to note that a nasal swab test showing negative doesn’t mean a person doesn’t have lung cancer. The test is meant to offer reassurance while doctors and patients wait for CT scans to come through. On the other hand if the test comes as positive, then specific drugs can be given to patients, thereby increasing their likelihood of survival.  

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