NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


June 1, 2006

Lung cancer acts differently in women than in men, and major new studies are exploring if estrogen is a key reason -- and whether harnessing the hormone might help fight the No. 1 cancer killer, say observers.

While male deaths from lung cancer have been dropping since 1991, women's death rates are stubbornly holding steady. Much of that difference is attributed to gender variations in smoking, lung cancer's main cause. However:

  • Women tend to get different kinds of lung cancer than men.
  • While it's unclear if they're at greater risk of developing the disease, some research suggests they may absorb more cancer-causing chemicals from cigarettes and become sick after smoking less.
  • Among people who never smoked, more women than men are diagnosed with lung cancer.

Women also tend to survive lung cancer slightly better than their male counterparts. And some of the newest lung cancer drugs, Tarceva and Iressa, seem to work more often in women.

We're just at the infancy of exploring estrogen's role in lung cancer, cautions University of Pittsburgh pharmacologist Jill Siegfried.

Currently, two provocative studies are getting under way:

  • Siegfried's research suggests estrogen may act as a fuel for lung tumors just like it does for many breast tumors, and that blocking estrogen with the same drugs that breast cancer patients use might also work in the lungs.
  • The second study, involving 600 women around the country, tests an experimental drug called Xyotax that may need estrogen to work. Some 45 percent of women given Xyotax survived lung cancer for a year, compared with just 25 percent of women given standard drugs or men given either regimen.

Estrogen seems to activate an enzyme inside tumors that unlocks Xyotax's cancer-fighting ingredient from its covering, explains Siegfried.

Source: Lauran Neergaard, "Estrogen gets look in lung cancer: Studies examine why illness acts differently in men and women," Associated Press/Houston Chronicle, May 29, 2006.


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