A Moment of Hope: Why Now Is the Time to Get Involved in Lung Cancer Research

Jennifer King is the Director of Science and Research for our partner, the Lung Cancer Alliance. She holds a PhD in Molecular Biology from MIT, and spent several years in the lab doing translational, “bench to bedside” research. She then worked with the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) where she was able to expand her clinical experience and get a broad-based view of everything that happens across the cancer journey. She joined the Lung Cancer Alliance 18 months ago, and is thrilled to be able to use her knowledge and talents to bring the changing science to patients.

In preparation for the announcement of our partnership with the Lung Cancer Alliance, we interviewed Jennifer about the critical role of clinical trials in lung cancer research.

As a former lab scientist, you obviously understand the importance of clinical trials. How would you articulate that importance?

Clinical trials are key to how we learn what really works in patients. They’re the way that we can bring new therapies to market and provide the best scientific evidence for what works and what doesn’t in what situations.

And in lung cancer, they’re absolutely critical. This disease has historically been very difficult to treat. But the last eighteen months in lung cancer research have been a whole new world. There were six FDA drug approvals last year – that’s unheard of. And there are so many new therapies in the pipeline that there’s no way that we can determine which ones will work best without clinical trials. It’s such an important time for our community to get involved in this research and help researchers figure out what works and for whom so that new drugs can be brought to market in the smartest way possible.

What lung cancer research are you most excited about these days? Any particular studies or areas of research?

With so many new therapies being studied, there is a lot of research to be excited about. I’d say the areas that are showing the most promise at the moment are targeted therapies and immunotherapy. Targeted therapies are designed to work on a patient’s specific tumor – you may have heard this concept called precision medicine. A patient’s tumor is profiled and the results direct the treatment. For people that have lung cancer associated with a particular gene change for which we have a drug, this type of therapy can be very effective, at least for a period of time. I highly encourage people to get molecular testing and look for currently available drugs or clinical trials that work for their particular gene change.

Immunotherapy is getting the most hype. It’s a fascinating concept in which treatment is meant to boost the body’s natural defenses against cancer. But it’s important to remember that this research is still in very early stages. There are a lot of questions about immunotherapy for which we just don’t know the answers yet. There is one class of drugs (PD1 inhibitors) that are approved, but it’s been found that they work for just 15-20% of people. So a lot of the research being done right now is to find what works – and then to find out who it works best for, and whether immunotherapy should be given alone or in combination with other treatments. And this is why we need more people to take part in clinical trials. Everyone wants to figure out how to help the most people, and the data from trials is so critical.

What’s the number one question you get about clinical trials at the Lung Cancer Alliance? How do you answer?

Without a doubt, the calls we get most are people who want to be in an immunotherapy trial. They see something about Opdivo or Keytruda and they’re interested. This is where we have the opportunity to direct people to promising trials that are right for them.

Speaking of directing patients to trials, there are so many trials out there, and of course some are more promising than others. How can patients and caregivers navigate the available trials to ensure the one they’re joining is the best one for them?

There are many resources out there to get a sense of what is looking most promising – treatment teams, patient navigators, advocacy groups like the Lung Cancer Alliance, Antidote, etc. I recommend that patients talk through trial options as early as possible with their care teams, and that they check out these other resources as well.

As part of our larger commitment to lung cancer clinical research, the Lung Cancer Alliance has a helpline that patients can call for advice on this topic, and I would urge anyone to do that if they’re curious about a trial or a particular area of study: 1 (800) 298-2436.

 Less than 4% of cancer patients take part in clinical trials. What do you think are the biggest barriers to participation, and how can they be addressed?

We asked this question in a survey recently, and the results showed that the discussions about clinical trials were simply not happening. Most people said they didn’t consider a clinical trial because it was never brought up to them. If the discussions are, they are too late – by the time a patient wanted to consider a clinical trial, their disease was too far progressed or they were too far down their treatment path.

The other barrier I would cite is logistics. It’s getting better but it has been very difficult to find a trial that was open, convenient, and a good match. Even my mother calls me sometimes to ask me to find trials for friends on clinicaltrials.gov – it’s just so hard to navigate. This is a very common experience and that’s why we’re so excited to be partnering with Antidote to try to tackle this problem head-on.

What’s the one thing about lung cancer clinical trials that you want everyone to know?

People still think of lung cancer as a bleak diagnosis, but it’s really changing. And we can accelerate the progress if we drive medical research participation.