NEWS | June 26, 2014

Surgical biopsy proves safe for selected late-stage lung cancer patients

Findings should promote use of targeted treatments


Researchers at UC Davis have determined that surgical biopsies can be safely performed on select patients with late-stage non-small cell lung cancer, which should enhance their access to drugs that target specific genetic mutations such as epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR).

The findings, published in the July issue of The Journal of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery, address a common problem in treatment for advanced lung cancer: insufficient tumor tissue available for molecular analysis, which is required before prescribing targeted therapy.


Dr. David Cooke
David Cooke

“We will be allowing more people to be eligible for clinical trials, and ultimately that will provide value to the patient and access to treatments they may not have had otherwise,” said study lead author David T. Cooke, assistant professor and head of general thoracic surgery at UC Davis Medical Center.

In many cases of late-stage lung cancer, surgical biopsy is deemed too dangerous, so less invasive approaches are used, including fine needle aspiration and core needle biopsies.

“With clinical trials of new targeted therapies, an exhausting level of testing is performed,” Cooke said.  “With less invasive biopsies, sometimes there is not enough volume of cells collected to do the molecular testing.”

Cooke and colleagues retrospectively examined the records of 25 patients whose cases were discussed at a multidisciplinary thoracic oncology conference or clinic and who had known or suspected stage IV non-small cell lung cancer. All elected to have surgical biopsies, most of which were done using video-assisted thoracic surgery, a procedure that requires general anesthesia but only small incisions.

Of the cases, five experienced a complication; three of them were minor. Surgical biopsy led to the identification of potentially targetable molecular information in  more than half, with 10 of the 25 patients also determined to be eligible for enrollment into a therapeutic targeted clinical trial.

"Patients who have been reviewed in a multidisciplinary manner and determined that less invasive biopsies might not be successful, could be appropriate for surgical biopsy, even at stage IV,” Cooke concluded.

Cooke emphasized that the approach should only be used when the case has been reviewed by a team of experts, including a pulmonologist, radiologist, surgeon and medical oncologist, and the best biopsy strategy is selected.

“I think this will change the game,” he said. “It will empower thoracic surgeons to work closely with multidisciplinary tumor boards and participate in the care of late-stage lung cancer patients.”

Other study authors included: David R. Gandara, Philip C. Mack, Primo N. Lara, Jr. and Elizabeth A. David, all of UC Davis; Royce F. Calhoun, formerly of UC Davis and now with Rideout Health; and Neal C. Goodwin, formerly of Jackson Laboratory-West and now with Champions Oncology, Inc.

UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center
UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center is the only National Cancer Institute-designated center serving the Central Valley and inland Northern California, a region of more than 6 million people. Its specialists provide compassionate, comprehensive care for more than 10,000 adults and children every year, and access to more than 150 clinical trials at any given time. Its innovative research program engages more than 280 scientists at UC Davis, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Jackson Laboratory (JAX West), whose scientific partnerships advance discovery of new tools to diagnose and treat cancer. Through the Cancer Care Network, UC Davis collaborates with a number of hospitals and clinical centers throughout the Central Valley and Northern California regions to offer the latest cancer care. Its community-based outreach and education programs address disparities in cancer outcomes across diverse populations. For more information, visit