Research projects

Understanding why treatments don’t work for some non-smoking lung cancer patients

Professor Rocio Sotillo
Project period
January 2022 - December 2024
Research Institute
Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum
Cancer types
Lung cancer
Award amount

Project aim

Professor Sotillo and her team are trying to understand why some non-smoking lung cancer patients develop resistance to treatment. They hope that studying the effect of specific genetic mutations on the development of lung tumours will help identify the best treatments for patients on a case-by-case basis.

Hope for the future

Smoking is the single biggest risk factor for lung cancer and is estimated to be the cause of 72% of lung cancer cases in the UK. However, some patients develop lung cancer despite never smoking. Some of these patients respond to targeted therapies and recover, however, many go on to develop resistance and their treatment stops working, meaning cancer comes back.

Professor Sotillo and her team are working to understand why some types of lung tumours are more aggressive than others, and why some respond to treatment while others eventually resist it. In the future, they hope that this will help more lung cancer patients to make a full recovery by finding which drugs are most likely to work.


Meet the scientist

Professor Rocio Sotillo is based at the German Cancer Research Center, supported by a program that recognises excellent female researchers. Her lab studies how chromosomes (which are made up of genes) can become unstable and what that means for cancer development and progression.

The science

All cancers are ultimately caused by changes to the genes that usually control how cells spread and multiply. However, many different genes can become faulty and lead to the development of cancer. This means that there can be differences in the way tumours behave between individual patients even if they have the same type of cancer.

Some specific changes to genes are seen more commonly in lung cancer patients that are non-smokers, such as the ALK gene. If the cells in a lung tumour carry a mutation of the ALK gene, it is called ALK-positive lung cancer. Treatments called ALK inhibitors can be effective for patients who are ALK-positive. However, some patients develop resistance and their cancer ends up coming back. This suggests that there, not all ALK-positive lung cancers are the same. Research has shown that other genes in these tumours can also be faulty, and this could make it easier for tumours to grow and resist treatment.

Professor Sotillo and her team are using state-of-the-art techniques to study why different changes to these faulty genes, and combinations of them, can result in tumours that grow at different rates and develop resistance to treatment. They also hope to understand how new changes in these genes can affect a patient’s chance of successful treatment and survival. In the near future, this could help personalise cancer treatment for lung cancer patients, ensuring that patients receive the best possible treatment. 

In 2020, approximately 2.2 million people worldwide were diagnosed with lung cancer, making it the 2nd most common cancer globally.

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