November 26, 2001

Lung Cancer Research Develops at Weill Medical

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Cornell University’s Weill College of Medicine is leading the way in lung cancer research, serving as the coordinating academic center for a comprehensive study that will test the effectiveness of a novel cancer detection technique on up to 10,000 regular smokers.

If the new cancer screening technology replaces the current chest x-ray detection methods, lung cancer cure rates could potentially jump from 15 percent to over 80 percent, according to preliminary reports.

Since the early stages of lung cancer have relatively few symptoms, those affected by the disease rarely notice it until late, and often untreatable, stages of the cancer, according to Carolyn Hill, administrator of the New York Early Lung Cancer Action Program (NY-ELCAP).

Regular screening via chest x-rays also have their failings. “By the time you can see [cancer nodes] on a chest x-ray, they are fairly large and often not treatable,” Hill explained.

Since the initial cancer-screening process got underway last spring, nearly 3,000 smokers have received their first scanning at 11 sites around New York State. Approximately 700 of the patients were treated at the Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan, according to Hill.

The study follows healthy smokers aged 60 and above for 8 to 13 years to measure the survival and early-detection rates of lung cancer victims.

Dr. John H.M. Austin, professor of radiology at Columbia University Medical School and head of the division of chest radiology there, which conducts the screenings, emphasized the high hope cancer researchers put on the new scanning technology.

“160,000 Americans die of lung cancer each year — that’s the number of victims of the [Sept. 11] Pentagon and World Trade Center attacks [succumbing to cancer] every 15 days,” Austin said.

Since the new test can detect small cancerous lesions one-fourth the size of those detectable by the standard chest x-rays, “it could significantly increase the survival rates for lung cancer. Currently there is a 15 percent survival rate for people diagnosed with lung cancer — and that is for those we can catch early. This may be the perfect technology for early detection,” Austin said.

Matthew Dounel ’99, coordinator of the screening program for the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, put it this way, “CT [computed-tomography] screening could do for lung cancer what mammograms have done for breast cancer.”

As of last week, Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center has performed initial screenings on 228 patients, according to Austin.

NY-ELCAP began roughly three years ago with funding mainly from a $4.5 million settlement between New York State and U.S. tobacco manufacturers, according to Hill. The study measures benefits of CAT (Computer-Assisted Tomography) scan technology applied to lung cancer detection, said Hill.

Representing a partnership of 37 of New York’s medical schools, academic health centers and research institutions, NY-ELCAP is the most comprehensive study of its kind, according to the organization’s website.

It offers free screening in Buffalo, Syracuse, New York City and other locations in the state to 10,000 men and women with a history of regular smoking. The experimental test has been available since the late 1990s in many hospitals not participating in the study, but its costs are not covered by most health insurance plans, according to Austin.

Conducting a study to prove the benefits of the early detection technique is “an idea whose time has come,” Austin noted.

Because of the disease’s high mortality rate and its prevalence in the U.S., lung cancer was a prime candidate for testing the new detection technique, Austin said.

Because the air held in lungs make them low-density organs, the 20-second scan can be conducted using relatively little radiation, according to Hill. “The test’s radiation exposure has the equivalent [health] effect as one pack of cigarettes in a lifetime,” Hill noted.

The cancer-screening test can also have positive psychological benefits for participants. Dounel, who interviews many of the patients tested at the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, said, “the initial screening process can really help people come to terms with their smoking habits.”

“It can be both intellectually and emotionally challenging [for patients] to sit down and truly think about their chances of getting lung cancer compared to the average non-smoker,” he added.

Dr. Claudia Henschke, principal investigator of the screening program and head of the department of radiology at Cornell Medical Center, could not be reached for comment.

Directors of the program hope to conduct initial screenings on an additional 7,000 smokers by mid-2002, according to Hill.

For more information about the test, NY-ELCAP can be reached at 1-866-693-5227 or online at

Archived article by Yoni Levine