Despite decades of warnings about smoking, lung cancer is still the second-most common cancer and the leading cause of death from cancer in the U.S. Patients are often diagnosed only when their disease is already at an advanced stage and difficult to treat. Researchers at the West Coast Metabolomics Center at the University of California (UC) Davis are trying to change that, by identifying biomarkers that could be the basis of early tests for lung cancer. "Early diagnosis is the key to fighting lung cancer," said Dr. Oliver Fiehn, Director of the Metabolomics Center and a Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology at UC Davis. Lung cancer can be diagnosed early with regular low-dose CT (computed tomography) scans of people at risk. But these tests are very expensive, and also involve exposing patients to X-ray radiation. Instead, Dr. Fiehn, project scientist Dr. William Wikoff, and colleagues set out to look for biomarkers of developing lung cancer in blood from patients. Dr. Fiehn's lab specializes in "metabolomics," an approach that involves analyzing all the biochemical products of metabolism in cells and tissues at the same time. Like other "-omics" approaches, it's made possible by new technology and computing power, and it's opening up new ways to understand living processes. To find early biomarkers for lung cancer, the team needed to look at blood samples collected from people who developed the disease, months or years before they were diagnosed. Fortunately, the researchers were able to access samples stored from the CARET clinical trial. The CARET study, which ran from 1985 until it was halted in 1996, attempted to test whether doses of antioxidant vitamins could prevent cancer in heavy smokers and other people at high risk.
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