Local lab making leaps in lung cancer detection

Determining whether a nodule the size of a pinhead is lung cancer or not sounds like a nearly impossible task, but, thanks to a company called Oncimmune, a simple blood test is doing just that. Oncimmune, based in De Soto, has developed a multi-panel blood test, the Early Cancer Detection Test-Lung, or EarlyCDT-Lung, to detect antigens produced by tumors in early-stage lung cancer. The majority of lung cancer cases, approximately 85 percent according to the Lung Cancer Alliance, are detected in late-stage form and have a mere, five-year survival expectancy. Late-detection is more common because early-stage tumors are often too small to be seen on a CT scan and because the early symptoms of lung cancer - chest pains and shortness of breath to name a few - are relatively common with many conditions. Onimmune's blood test uses the body's own chemical composition to detect the presence of even the smallest tumor.

"A test like this was really needed for lung cancer detection because there aren't any other options out there," said Oncimmune President and CEO Dan Calvo. "The survival rate for patients caught with late-stage lung cancer is only 15 percent but with early detection, that rate nearly triples."

The blood test was launched in the Midwest and Southeast in May of 2009 and nationally in June of this year, approximately 500 physicians in 35 states are using the test to help diagnose patients.

"The EarlyCDT is being used by these physicians for two reasons: mostly it's being used as a follow-up for a clearer diagnosis when nodules are spotted in a patient's lung and secondly it's being encouraged for patients with a high-risk of lung cancer, namely those with a long history of smoking or with a family history of lung cancer," Calvo said.

Physicians draw a blood sample from EarlyCDT-Lung patients and prepare the sample to be sent to Oncimmune. Once received in De Soto, the patient sample is tested by Oncimmune staff, usually passing through eight pairs of hands, to be tested for elevated levels of a specific autoantibody, the chemical that indicates the body is fighting a tumor. Results of the test are returned to the physician in about a week, an elevated autoantibody result on any of the panels tested is a positive indication of a cancerous tumor.

"Our test, while the final read-out is a fairly basic color chart, is actually pretty complex, our people have been taught how to conduct it properly," Calvo said. "That's why, at least for the foreseeable future, EarlyCDT-Lung will have to be done in-house and not by physicians themselves."

Since launching EarlyCDT-Lung, Oncimmune has processed a few hundred tests each month, or about 100 tests/week. In addition to completing all EarlyCDT-Lung tests, the De Soto lab is also in the process of developing EarlyCDT-Breast, which will hopefully be launched in early 2011.

"Scientifically, the EarlyCDT method could be used to detect any of the solid tumor cancers; breast, colorectal, etc., it's just a matter of isolating the exact autoantibody for each type," said Calvo.

Calvo is hopeful that the work Oncimmune is doing in the field of lung cancer research and detection will help advance treatment and increase quality of life and survival rates.

"In the grand scheme of treatment and detection research, lung cancer is way behind. The survival rate for lung cancer patients has stayed the same for the past 30 years while other cancers, breast, prostate, etc., have improved. I'd like to see that change," Calvo said.

For those curious to learn more about Oncimmune and EarlyCDT-Lung, the company is hosting and open house on Thursday, Nov. 11, from 3-7 p.m. at their headquarters at 8960 Commerce Drive in De Soto. Visitors will have the opportunity to tour the testing facilities and to speak with EarlyCDT-Lung sponsors and lung cancer survivors.

"We're all just trying to do some good here and it's great to get to work on something that can have such a positive benefit to society," Calvo said.

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