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Lung cancer patients with rare gene may get new treatment

Lung cancer patients carrying a rare gene mutation may be able to delay the disease's progression with drugs often taken by those with breast cancer, a new study suggests.

European researchers found that patients with non-small-cell lung cancer who took drugs targeting so-called HER2 proteins, which result from gene mutations in less than 5 percent of lung cancers, experienced an extra five months of progression-free survival.

"We were favorably surprised by the outcome," said study author Dr. Julien Mazières of Larrey Hospital in Toulouse, France. "We do think that all lung [cancers] should be tested for HER2 as is done in France."

The study appeared Monday in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

Non-small-cell is the most common lung cancer, seen in about 85 percent of cases, according to the American Cancer Society. Lung cancer is diagnosed in more than 200,000 Americans each year and 158,000 die from it, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. HER2-positive cancer tests positive for a protein called human epidermal growth factor receptor 2. It feeds the growth of cancer cells and is caused by a gene mutation.

Mazières and his colleagues identified this mutation in 65 non-small-cell lung cancer patients, administering anti-HER2 drugs such as Herceptin (trastuzumab), which also is used to target HER2 in breast cancer patients.

Half the patients were already at stage 4 lung cancer when diagnosed, others at earlier stages. Notably, most participants with the gene mutation were women, more than half of whom had never smoked.

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The extra five months of progression-free survival for those undergoing HER2 therapies "is a big deal in the cancer business," said Dr. Norman Edelman, chief medical officer of the American Lung Association.

"It's not absolutely a new finding, but it's another study in what is a very exciting field now in cancer," he said. "Up until now, we've treated cancers . . . using an elephant gun. This new field looks at the genetic makeup of individual tumors to see if we can attack them in a specific way, not a general way."

Though only a small percentage of lung cancer patients have the gene mutation, Edelman recommended that all patients be tested for it.

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