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Breakthrough Medication: A New Way to Detect Lung Cancer

November 29, 2023

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For many years, lung cancer has been a challenging condition to treat. It’s often diagnosed late – after a patient has developed symptoms – which usually means it has already spread to other parts of the body.

Now, a new medication called Cytalux® is changing the approach to detecting and treating lung cancer, increasing surgeons’ ability to identify and remove cancer in the lungs. That means more thorough treatment and a better chance of long-term survival for patients.

Atlantic Health System’s Overlook Medical Center is among the first in the country to offer Cytalux, in the surgical treatment of lung cancer outside of clinical trials. Federico Steiner, MD, a thoracic surgeon with Atlantic Health System, shares more on this innovative medication and how it’s helping to improve survival for patients with lung cancer.

A More Proactive Treatment Option for Lung Cancer

Cytalux is a medication made up of fluorescent folic acid. The folic acid accumulates in cancer cells but washes out of noncancerous cells quickly. When surgeons begin operating, they can see cancer cells, with the special folic acid, illuminated in the lungs with a camera.

Patients receive this medication through IV a couple of hours before their surgery. Fortunately, there are few negative side effects to this medication.

This new treatment means surgeons can see and remove small lesions that aren’t detected through imaging or other tests. In the future, it will allow surgeons to intervene earlier with higher confidence, rather than observing patients for months while cancer might continue to grow.

“For these types of lesions or tumors, we would normally delay intervention,” says Dr. Steiner. “Now, we have a tool that can complement what we already have available so we can get patients to the operating room earlier, often before cancer is invasive.”

Not only does Cytalux enable surgeons to remove cancer in its earliest stages, but they can also make sure they are getting nice margins, or removing all cancer cells, during the operation while saving as much healthy tissue as possible. Cytalux can be viewed three different ways that increase surgeons’ ability to identify lesions, which increases the sensitivity of detecting cancer cells.

Cytalux began as a bladder and ovarian cancer treatment but was approved by the FDA for use in lung cancer treatment in September 2023. On October 4, Atlantic Health was just the third hospital in the country to provide Cytalux to patients. Adding Cytalux as a treatment option expands on Atlantic Health’s already established lung cancer program.

Diagnosing Lung Cancer Earlier Than Ever

Cytalux is just one tool Atlantic Health uses for treating lung cancer. New guidelines from the American Cancer Society (ACS) are empowering physicians to diagnose lung cancer earlier. The ACS expanded its eligibility criteria for lung cancer screening CAT (computerized axial tomography) scans to include more patients. That includes recommending scans for more former smokers, younger patients and others who may be at risk of developing lung cancer.

“We realized we’re not capturing enough of the patient population that can have early cancer,” says Dr. Steiner. “By changing this protocol, we’re at the forefront of early detection and treatment.”

This aggressive push aligns with Atlantic Health’s lung cancer screening program, done in close collaboration with primary care providers, to improve early detection.

“This type of innovation is important to achieve longer survival rates,” says Dr. Steiner. “We don’t want to be thinking about survival in terms of months. I want to see patients living cancer-free with a high quality of life 10-15 years from now. That’s why we’re doing this.”

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