Nov 30, 2017 11:00 AM


members of the mcmahon lab
The McMahon Lab

“In the early 1960s, no one had the slightest idea where cancer came from,” says Martin McMahon, PhD, senior director for preclinical translation at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) and Cumming presidential professor of cancer biology in the department of dermatology at the University of Utah.

“To have seen the arc of discovery over the course of 40 years—from knowing nothing about a disease that had a direct impact on my family’s life to actually having a way of targeting it—that is a remarkable thing.”

As is the case with many of us, cancer has closely impacted McMahon’s family. He had a sister he never knew who died of retinoblastoma in 1959. Decades later, in 1993, his father died of lung cancer.

“When my dad was diagnosed with lung cancer I hadn’t the slightest idea how to help him or how to contribute in some meaningful way,” McMahon remembers. At the time, McMahon was already a cancer researcher studying a molecule called BRAF, which is significant in the development of several cancers, including lung cancer.

The McMahon Lab works to understand how a part of cell biology called signaling pathways contributes to cancer. A cell’s instructions are encoded in its nucleus. A message from outside the cell tells it to divide, move, or take other actions. To get this message to the nucleus, receptors on the wall of the cell start a complex chain of signals called a signaling pathway. In lung cancer cells, many of these signals don’t work the way they normally should.

By identifying and understanding the signals that aren’t working properly, scientists can develop and test drugs that target those mutated signals. About 30% of lung cancers can now be treated based on the disease’s specific genetics. This is called pathway targeted therapy.

“Lung cancer is a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty scenario right now,” McMahon says. “For certain types of lung cancer, there are targeted therapies routinely used in the clinic that did not exist 15 years ago. But for other types of lung cancer, there are not modern cutting-edge therapies.”

McMahon is hopeful that over the next 15 years, there will be an effective pathway targeted therapy or immunotherapy for every subset of lung cancer.

He sees several fields working together to make an impact against lung cancer, still the leading cancer killer in Utah and the United States. First, public health and prevention will play a huge role.

“If we could get people to stop smoking, the death rate from lung cancer would come down from 165,000 a year to maybe around 16,000 a year,” McMahon says. Scientists are also working to better understand the risk factors for nonsmoking lung cancer, such as radon.

Second, earlier detection methods will help find lung cancer when it is easier to treat. Advances in imaging and other detection technology will make an impact on lung cancer deaths.

Finally, research like the work in McMahon’s lab will lead to improved treatments for people with advanced disease.

“I have a glass-half-full view that we can really make a substantial impact on lung cancer,” McMahon says.

lung cancer cancer research genetics Cancer Center Research Program Experimental Therapeutics