Lung cancer

Lung cancer

Early stages of lung development
This year, more Australians will die from lung cancer than from any other cancer. Lung cancer causes more than one million deaths globally each year, including 9000 people in Australia.
Though cancer survival rates have improved overall, only 1 in 5 people diagnosed with lung cancer will still be alive 5 years after diagnosis. Our research into lung cancer is focused on developing new ways to detect and treat lung cancer through a better understanding of its biology.

Our lung cancer research

Our lung cancer researchers focuses on:

  • Understanding how normal lung cells develop, to determine what goes wrong when lung cancer develops.
  • Establishing new systems in which to study lung cancer biology and therapy.
  • Developing new approaches to treating lung cancer.

What is lung cancer?

Lung cancer is the abnormal, uncontrolled growth of lung cells. This is caused by changes to their genetic material. Different types of lung cancers arise from different cell types within the lung. The process by which this occurs is poorly understood.

Most lung cancer types are classified by their microscopic appearance. These include:

  • Small cell lung cancer
  • Non-small cell lung cancer: squamous cell carcinoma, adenocarcinoma and large cell carcinoma.

Other types of cancer can also occur in the lung. Some of these are rare types of cancer that arise from lung tissue.

Of lung cancers in Australia:

  • 10% are small cell lung cancers.
  • 60% are non-small cell lung cancer.
  • 30% are rare types of lung cancer or cannot be definitively classified.

Cancer cells from other organs can also spread (metastasise) to the lung.

Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that starts in the lining of the chest and spreads into the lungs. Exposure to asbestos is strongly linked to mesothelioma. For more information about mesothelioma, please visit Cancer Council Victoria.

The treatment and outlook for lung cancer depends on the type of cancer, and how far the cancer cells have spread. Lung cancers may be:

  • Contained within one part of a lung.
  • Spread to several sites across the lungs.
  • Spread (metastasised) to other parts of the body.

Most cases of lung cancer in Australia are detected at later, harder-to-treat stages.

What causes lung cancer?

Lung cancer occurs because of genetic changes in lung cells. These occur more frequently in people exposed to DNA-damaging agents such as tobacco smoke.

People who have smoked are 10 times more likely to develop lung cancer than non-smokers. Lung cancer is often associated with smoking (tobacco), however 1 in 3 women and 1 in 10 men diagnosed with lung cancer have no history of smoking. People who have never smoked tend to develop adenocarcinoma.

Specific cancer-promoting genetic changes have been discovered in adenocarcinomas in non-smokers. Understanding the genes that drive lung cancer growth and spread is allowing new treatments to be designed that can be matched to the genetic changes found in a patient’s lung cancer cells.

Risk factors for developing lung cancer

  • Exposure to tobacco smoke or other forms of smoke, including smog or traffic fumes.
  • Exposure to radiation such as the radioactive gas radon, or chest radiation to treat another cancer.
  • Exposure to other cancer-causing (‘carcinogenic’) substances.
  • Gender: amongst non-smokers, females are at higher risk of developing non-small cell lung cancer.
  • Age: lung cancer rates increase with age.
  • Lung inflammation and scarring, from other lung diseases.
  • Family history: close relatives of a non-smoker with lung cancer are more likely to get the same disease.

How is lung cancer treated?

Treatment for lung cancer depends on the type of lung cancer and how far the cancer cells have spread. Currently, most lung cancers are only discovered when they have spread beyond the lungs, which reduces the likelihood of treatment curing the disease.

Lung cancers that are small and confined to one section of a lung can often be successfully removed by surgery.

Lung cancers are often treated with:

  • Chemotherapy and radiotherapy to kill rapidly growing cells
  • Targeted therapies that match medicines to the proteins that are driving the cancer’s growth. For example, lung cancers with high levels of the EGFR protein can be successfully treated with medications that block EGFR function

Support for people with lung cancer

For more information about how lung cancer is treated and patient support, please visit Cancer Council Victoria or the Lung Foundation Australia.

WEHI researchers are not able to provide specific medical advice specific to individuals. If you have lung cancer and wish to find out more information about clinical trials, please visit the Australian Cancer Trials or the Australian New Zealand Clinical Trials Registry, or consult your medical specialist.


Dr Sarah Best

Dr Sarah Best photographed at WEHI
Laboratory Head, The Brain Cancer Centre

Professor Guillaume Lessene

Professor Guillaume Lessene in a laboratory
Laboratory Head; Leader, New Medicines and Advanced Technologies Theme
Super Content: 
Two female scientists standing and smiling at camera

Institute researchers have discovered how to use a potent combination of molecules to stop the growth of lung cancer and begin to shrink the tumours in preclinical models.

Scientist in lab holding research gel, smiling at camera

Scientists at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne have discovered the cells that are thought to give rise to lung squamous cell carcinoma.

Two female scientists in the lab, looking at specimen tubes

Dr Kate Sutherland and Dr Sarah Best have revealed a unique molecular signature in the blood that could be used to detect aggressive lung cancers with a simple blood test.

Four scientists standing outside smiling at the camera

Melbourne researchers have identified a 'biomarker' that could improve treatment options for lung cancer by better identifying patients that will respond to new anti-cancer drugs.