For many years, oncologists have known that cancers can secrete complex molecules into the blood and that levels of these molecules can be easily measured. These so-called ‘tumor markers’ are traditionally associated with a single dominant cancer type, for example Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) linked to prostate cancer, Carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) to colorectal cancer, CA125 to ovarian cancer, CA19.9 to pancreatic cancer and CA27.29 to breast cancer. However, the real challenge has been to determine a practical use for these markers. They don’t appear to be useful as a means of screening otherwise healthy people for evidence of underlying cancers.
Now a University of Colorado Cancer Center studyhas begun to further define the potential of these markers by looking in a type of cancer not normally associated with them – non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). The study suggests that rather than screening for disease, these tumor markers could be useful in monitoring therapeutic outcomes in those with already established disease.
“If you ask some oncologists they might say that there’s no point checking these markers in lung cancer as it doesn’t express them,” says D. Ross Camidge, MD, PhD, Joyce Zeff Chair in Lung Cancer Research at the University of Colorado Cancer Center and director of Thoracic Oncology at the CU School of Medicine. However, when Camidge and colleagues examined levels of four markers classically associated with other cancers, namely CEA, CA125, CA19.9 and CA27.29, they found that if all four were checked, at least one of them was elevated in 95 percent of advanced non-small cell lung cancers (NSCLCs). Some cases expressed only one marker; others expressed multiple markers together.
In recent years, dramatic anti-cancer responses have become possible for some patients with advanced NSCLC with targeted therapies used against specific mutations. By focusing on some of the most prominent examples of ‘oncogene-addicted’ NSCLC – notably, cases of advanced EGFR, ALK or ROS1 positive NSCLC treated with the appropriate EGFR, ALK or ROS1 targeted therapy – the Colorado group was able to study the potential for these blood tumor markers to reflect both initial therapeutic outcomes and the later development of treatment resistance.