Researchers identify biomarker for smokers' lung cancer

Vol. 3, Issue 1, 2014

Summary

The ASCL1 protein may help identify lung cancers that are related to smoking.

Photograph showing George Vasmatzis, Ph.D., a Mayo Clinic Cancer Center molecular medicine researcher

George Vasmatzis, Ph.D.

Mayo Clinic Cancer Center researchers have shown that a specific protein may be a prognostic biomarker for identifying smoking-related lung cancers. ASCL1, a protein coded by the ASCL1 gene, is associated with increased expression of a particular cancer-causing gene called RET.

"This is exciting because we've found what we believe to be a 'druggable target' here," said George Vasmatzis, Ph.D., a Mayo Clinic Cancer Center molecular medicine researcher and senior author of the article detailing the lung cancer findings that was published in the Sept. 16, 2013, online edition of Oncogene. "It's a clear biomarker for aggressive adenocarcinomas. These are the fast-growing cancer cells found in smokers' lungs."

ASCL1 is known to control neuroendocrine cell development and was previously linked to the development of thyroid cancer and small cell lung cancer but not to smoking-related lung cancer. The research also showed that patients with ASCL1 tumors with high levels of the RET oncogene protein did not survive as long as ASCL1 patients with low levels of RET.

When researchers blocked the ASCL1 protein in lung cancer cell lines expressing both genes, the level of RET decreased and tumor growth slowed. This leads researchers to believe that this mechanism will be a promising target for potential drugs and a strong candidate for clinical trials on lung cancer.