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Then with Dr. Andrea Bild of the University of Utah, Spira analyzed cells from 129 current and former smokers and found the genes involved were part of a well-known cancer-causing pathway named the PI3K pathway. When PI3K-related genes are too active, too much cell growth can occur, but most studies have examined those genes only in tumors.
On Wednesday, Spira reported finding PI3K activation in some current or former smokers with precancerous lesions, too, but not in those with other lung diseases.
Spira cannot estimate how much lung cancer might come from this genetic pathway. Nor does the work mean it's OK for people without this marker to keep puffing. Other lung cancer pathways could be at work, and smoking also causes heart attacks, other lung diseases and other cancers.
But a company Spira helped found, Allegro Diagnostics Inc., is beginning a study of up to 800 current and former smokers who need a bronchoscopy anyway to see how well a test based on the research performs.
Moreover, there are some experimental drugs being designed to fight PI3K activation. One compound already had been tested in nine smokers with precancerous lesions, six of whom had their lesions improve. Spira's team went back and checked those study participants' previously stored airway cells -- and found those who had responded to the compound indeed had their PI3K activity drop, a preliminary but exciting clue in the quest to develop cancer-preventing drugs.
"There's enough evidence in this article to start down that road" of researching PI3K chemoprevention, said Duke's Ready.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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