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One of the reasons why non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) is the deadliest form of cancer worldwide is because it is hard to diagnose before it spreads. Pre-cancerous lesions and early tumors are too small to detect and rarely cause any symptoms.

But researchers have found that early-stage NSCLC tumors or pre-cancerous lesions can give themselves away.

Cancer cells have a sweet tooth. They consume glucose at a higher rate than healthy cells in order to fuel growth. Lung cancer screening takes advantage of tumors’ love for sugar with PET imaging, where a radioactive sugar tracer is taken up by tumors and other tissues. However, this tracer is not very sensitive for early disease.

A study published in the journal Science Translational Medicine found cancer cells can transport and consume sugar using a molecule called Sodium Glucose Transporter 2 (SGLT2). SGLT2 is produced at high levels in early stage NSCLC tumors and pre-cancerous lesions, creating a new opportunity for early-stage disease detection.

“Catching lung cancer early is critical because this is the stage when surgery and chemotherapy and radiation are most effective,” said Dr. Gina DeNicola, a researcher in Moffitt’s Department of Cancer Physiology. “While this is very promising and imaging for SGLT2 could potentially detect early disease, more work is needed to determine if it would work in patients with lung cancer.”

The study also showed that a class of diabetes drugs, called gliflozins, are able to slow down tumor progression in mice. DeNicola says while treatment of mice with the drug decreased tumor number and increased survival, it was not curative. She says clinical trials will be needed for further testing and the drugs would most likely need to be combined with other therapies, such as chemotherapy and radiation, to be effective.

Please note: Moffitt Cancer Center was not involved in this research. Our expert is providing commentary on a specific research study for a specific subset of patients. It may not be relevant for all patients with lung cancer. Please consult with your physician.