Genetic alterations in tumors and tissue taken from early-stage lung cancer patients are clear pointers to which cancers might recur. Researchers say the findings could change the approach to treating even the smallest lung cancers—the size of a pea—which are known to recur within five years in 30 to 40 percent of patients.
"This is DNA forensics for cancer," says Malcolm Brock, M.D., associate professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins. "While there may be no trace of cancer that we can spot after surgery with a microscope, the DNA evidence from these tumors may have been left at the scene, especially in lymph nodes."
The research team from Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center identified methyl groups that connect with the DNA structure of a gene. The development of cancers signals cells to switch certain genes on or off, and methylation is a common phenomenon in this process. Disruption to these signals may create abnormal proteins that lead to cancer or its recurrence.
In the study, Brock and his team checked more than 700 surgical samples from 167 early stage non-small lung cancer patients, looking for specific methylation patterns linked o cancer. For 51 patients, whose cancers recurred within 40 months, tumor and lymph node tissue was compared with samples from the remaining 116 patients whose cancer did no recur. The scientists tested all the samples for methylation on seven genes linked to the development of lung cancer. Four of them—p16, H-cadherin, APC and RASSF1A—showed the highest amounts of methylation in patients who had a recurrence of the cancer.
For many of the genes, the study revealed a twofold difference in methyl marks between recurrent cancers and those that did not return.
"The DNA evidence we see for many of the recurring cases suggests it may be wise if our work is confirmed to reclassify such cancers as advanced disease instead of early stage," says Brock.
Higher than normal methylation, combining two genes known as p16 and H-cadherin located in both tumor tissue and a lymph node remote from the tumor area, meant that cancers returned faster than average in 11 patients. For 8 of them this methylation pattern had cancers returning within a year; for the remaining 3 it took 30 months for the cancers to recur.
When analyzing the results to quantify the odds on a patient’s cancer returning, they noted a 5 to 25-fold in risk depending on the particular methylation pattern. While the small sample size meant that some of the gene markers lacked statistical significance, they believed that odds predictions were valid for p16 and H-cadherin.
Kimmel Cancer Center medical oncologist James Herman, M.D. says if these results are confirmed, it may lead doctors to consider treating high-risk patients more aggressively with chemotherapy after surgery. He also believes that therapies which target these gene patterns by stripping off methyl groups hold promise as well. "These marks of aggressive disease also are themselves targets for therapy."
The study appeared in the March 13 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.