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NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

New Treatments Spur Sharp Reduction in Lung Cancer Mortality Rate

According to a new study, mortality rates from the most common lung cancer, non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), have fallen sharply in the United States in recent years, due primarily to recent advances in treatment.

The study was led by researchers at NCI. The findings were published Aug. 12 in the New England Journal of Medicine.

“Reduced tobacco consumption in the U.S. has been associated with a progressive decrease in lung cancer deaths that started around 1990 in men and around 2000 in women,” said Dr. Douglas Lowy, NCI deputy director and co-author of the study. “Until now, however, we have not known whether newer treatments might contribute to some of the recent improvement. This analysis shows for the first time that nationwide mortality rates for the most common category of lung cancer, non-small cell lung cancer, are declining faster than its incidence, an advance that correlates with the Food and Drug Administration approval of several targeted therapies for this cancer in recent years.”

In this study, researchers looked at data for both NSCLC, which accounts for 76 percent of lung cancer in the U.S., and small-cell lung cancer (SCLC), which accounts for 13 percent (other subtypes of lung cancer that constitute the remaining share of cases were not covered in this study). 

In the last decade, new treatments for NSCLC have become available, including those that target genetic changes seen in some NSCLC tumors as well as immune checkpoint inhibitors that help the immune system better attack NSCLC. In contrast, there have been limited treatment advancements for SCLC.

The researchers found that, in recent years, deaths from NSCLC decreased even faster than the decrease in NSCLC incidence and the decrease in deaths was associated with a substantial improvement in survival.  

“The survival benefit for patients with non-small cell lung cancer treated with targeted therapies has been demonstrated in clinical trials, but this study highlights the impact of these treatments at the population level,” said Dr. Nadia Howlader of NCI’s Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences, who led the study. “We can now see the impact of advances in lung cancer treatment on survival.” 

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