A team of Australian scientists has uncovered a novel molecular signature for an aggressive type of adenocarcinomas, a form of lung cancer. These cancers were also found to produce specific metabolites that can potentially be identified in plasma samples, raising hopes that a diagnostic blood test for this condition can be developed in the future.

"More than one in five lung adenocarcinomas have alterations in the KEAP1/NRF2 pathway, suggesting it is a major cancer driver," says Kate Sutherland, co-lead on the research. "These cancers are very aggressive, are resistant to standard therapies and have a poor prognosis, so new therapies are urgently needed."

Up to 40 percent of lung cancers are adenocarcinomas, and one in five of these particular tumors are resistant to chemotherapy and radiotherapy. The new study revealed that these specific cancers potentially respond well to a new generation of anti-PD-1 and anti-CTLA-4 immunotherapies, known as checkpoint inhibitors. Being able to easily, and quickly, identity these specific tumors will allow physicians to better identify those patients that would respond best to newer immunotherapy treatments.

A further consequence of this new research is the discovery of unique metabolic markers that can be identified in blood samples, pointing to a potential early detection blood test.

"Working with our colleagues Dr David De Souza and Professor Malcolm McConville at Bio21 Institute, we were able to identify a unique 'breadcrumb' trail that the cancers leave behind in the blood," says Sutherland. "Our hope would be that the test could identify patients likely to respond to immunotherapies, but also that it could be a simple, non-invasive blood test for the early detection of these lung cancers."

At this point, the research has only identified this molecular pathway in animal models, so the next stage is to verify these results in human lung samples. Following that, it may be some time before clinical applications become a reality, but this discovery is a vital first step towards creating a blood test that can both diagnose lung cancers and direct a physician to the most probable successful treatment.

The researchers discuss the study in the video below.

The research was published in the journal Cell Metabolism.