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Scientists have shown that low-dose helical computed tomography (CT) screens can reduce mortality from lung cancer in former or current heavy smokers by an astounding 20.0%. Initial findings from the National Lung Screening Trial (NLST), a near-decade long effort to determine whether CT screens or chest X-rays are effective in reducing mortality from lung cancer, were announced late last year by the National Cancer Institute, prompting excitement and hope in a field that has long remained unchanged. The study demonstrates for the first time a validated screening method that can impact the number of deaths from lung cancer each year, the nation’s #1 cancer killer.
The NLST enrolled 53,454 current and former heavy smokers (30 pack years or more) aged 55-74, randomly assigned to annual low dose CT screens or chest X-rays. Preliminary results announced last November showed a 20.0% reduction in deaths from lung cancer in the group of participants receiving annual low dose CT screens, compared to chest X-rays. Complete results were published in The New England Journal of Medicine on June 29, 2011, allowing the scientific community to pour over the data. The new information will help scientists analyze the number of positive and negative screens, the amount of false positives, the different types of lung cancer able to be detected, and the risks and adverse events. This information is crucial for researchers and policy makers to determine how to best implement CT screening as an effective screening method for lung cancer.
The study marks a significant milestone for the treatment of lung cancer. While the most effective way to reduce risk of lung cancer is to stop smoking, CT screens are another tool in our arsenal to fight this disease – especially in those who have already taken the important step of quitting. Whether CT screening will be effective in younger age groups, light smokers, or never smokers remains to be seen, but this is undoubtedly a step in the right direction.
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