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BWFH's Lung Cancer Screening Program takes part in new study to help detect lung cancer earlier

November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month. According to the American Cancer Society, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death among both men and women. In fact, more people die of lung cancer each year than of colon, breast and prostate cancers combined. As with most cancers, early detection significantly improves survival rates. At Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital, the Lung Cancer Screening Program uses low-dose CT to screen individuals who meet high-risk criteria. The department is also taking part in a new study that may help detect lung cancer even earlier.

Because lung cancer symptoms usually do not appear until the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, treatment can be a challenge or ineffective. That’s why it’s recommended that those at risk for lung cancer get screened before symptoms appear. “The Centers for Disease Control recommends people ages 55 to 79 years old with a 30 pack-year smoking history be screened for lung cancer,” says Dr. Francine Jacobson, a Brigham Health radiologist who leads the Lung Cancer Screening Program at BWFH. “BWFH is the flagship site for the Brigham Health Lung Cancer Screening Program. All of the cases we do here are read by radiologists who are subspecialty trained and who also work at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.”

Using low-dose CT, Dr. Jacobson and her colleagues can identify chronic lung diseases as well as lung cancer. However, the test is not perfect and not all lung cancers are detected by CT screening. Most lung nodules identified on screening CT will prove to be benign based on their stability in CT appearance over time. A follow-up CT scan may be recommended more often than yearly to assess this stability. A small number of lung nodules may require a biopsy or other invasive procedures. But a new product being developed by Hummingbird Diagnostics seeks to improve the lung cancer detection process.

The company has developed a simple, targeted blood test that analyzes molecules in the blood, called microRNAs. These molecules can identify lung cancer at an early stage, allowing for earlier treatment and better treatment options. If it proves successful, it is hoped that the new test will provide a simple method to confirm low-dose CT screening results so that patients may avoid unnecessarily invasive procedures.

Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital are spearheading the study and asked Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital to participate. For Hummingbird Diagnostic, working with clinicians at Mass General and BWFH is an important step in their process. “We are very excited about our collaboration with world class institutions such as Mass General and BWFH,” says Jochen Kohlhaas, CEO of Hummingbird Diagnostics. “Having the experience of Dr. Jacobson leading our study at BWFH strongly supports Hummingbird’s progress in developing a confirmatory test for early detection of lung cancer from blood samples.”

And for Dr. Jacobson, who is offering her patients the chance to participate in the study, the potential benefit is invaluable. “Right now, if you have something that we’re worried about, you have to come back in three months for another scan,” she says. “If we knew that we could rely on a test, this test or any other test, to confirm that a finding definitely is cancer, we could start treatment sooner. If it can be determined that a finding is not cancer, we can save a patient from a lot of stress and uncertainty.”

While the new study shows promise, Dr. Jacobson reminds us that the best way to combat lung cancer is to avoid the risk factors in the first place. “The most important thing you can do to prevent lung cancer is to not smoke,” she says. “In addition to lung cancer, tobacco-associated diseases are responsible for a lot of other morbidity and mortality, including cardiovascular disease.”

If you’re ready to quit smoking, Brigham Health can help. The Lung Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital offers a Smoking Cessation Program that gives patients the knowledge and tools they need to quit smoking and remain smoke-free. For more information, or to register, call 617-278-0578 or email

If you’re a current or former long-term smoker between the ages of 55 and 79, lung cancer screening could save your life. You can learn more by contacting Dr. Jacobson at 617-732-6285 or emailing

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