Researchers in Blacksburg develop first lung cancer risk genetic test

Published: Aug. 7, 2017 at 9:48 PM EDT
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Scientists are tackling the deadliest cancer in the country by developing a test to determine whether someone could get lung cancer, based on their genes.

Nearly 250,000 new cases diagnosed this year, which is more than the next four most deadly cancers combined. Although half of all Americans who continue to smoke will die of lung cancer or illnesses related to tobacco use, 20 percent of lung cancer cases occur in those who never smoked.

The test can determine if someone is genetically predisposed to getting lung cancer, which makes their risk sky rocket.

It's important in the Appalachian region as the smoking and lung cancer rates are especially high.

Harold Garner is a Professor of Biomedicine, as well as the Executive Director for the Center for Bioinformatics and Genetics and the Executive Director of the Primary Research Network at VCOM.

He and his team at the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine studied hundreds of lung cancer patients and thousands of patients without cancer.

Doing this, they identified a genetic marker that can be found simply by sending a vial of blood off to a lab.

Garner explained, "It would be evaluated using our kit, an answer would come back, and the doctor would be able to tell you whether you're at risk or not at risk."

It turns out that the best genetic markers were found in the “junk DNA” or “dark matter DNA,” which is the part of the human genome that has been studied the least.

If the test is negative, there's a 97% chance the person, even a smoker, won't get lung cancer.

But if it's positive, there's a 93% chance the person will get it at some point, and they will need to follow a strict lifestyle to avoid it.

"Don't smoke, don't work in dangerous jobs where you're around lots of chemicals, and of course you should try to be in the best shape possible," Garner explained.

He said his team needs about $18 million to get the test on the market.

Dr. Garner's research is being commercialized by Orbit Genomics, Inc. “The company is currently fundraising to quickly bring this test to the market. We believe that it can save many lives from this very prevalent, devastating cancer and other diseases,” said Dede Willis, CEO and co-founder of Orbit Genomics, Inc.

But there's a strong future for this test.

Garner explained, "There's other components of this test that will help you to figure out what's, maybe, the underlying cause of lung cancer, the genetic underlying cause. We think that this could ultimately lead to new therapies as well."

And the team isn't stopping at just lung cancer.

"It is our intention to use the publicly available genome data, that comes from the National Cancer Institute, to try and identify these particular type of risk markers for every one of the 200 different types of cancers that are out there," Garner said.

If the team can pull that off, they'll be able to make one test for each type of cancer- so anyone will know what cancer they're at risk for.

Currently there are some genetic tests available for breast and ovarian cancer.

The lung cancer test still needs FDA approval.

Garner said he expects the test will be available in about two years.

All Garner's and his team's findings were recently published and can be viewed

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