26 June 2023

A national targeted screening programme designed to catch lung cancer sooner has been announced today (26 June).

It is expected to deliver one million scans per year and detect as many as 9,000 people with cancer, leading to earlier treatment. 

Lung cancer is the third most common cancer in the UK and the most common cause of cancer death, killing about 35,000 people each year – or 95 per day. It accounts for 21% of all cancer deaths. 

Only a quarter of lung cancers are detected at an early stage where treatment, such as an operation, is more likely to be successful; just 16% of lung cancer patients in the UK survive five or more years.

“This is mainly because most people do not develop any symptoms – such as a persistent cough, coughing up blood, regular chest infections and weight loss - until the disease is more advanced and therefore harder to treat and cure,” explained Professor Robert Rintoul, Lead Clinician for Cancer at Royal Papworth Hospital NHS Foundation Trust.

“Screening has been shown to find lung cancers at an early stage when people do not have any symptoms.” 

More than 70% of cases of lung cancer are caused by smoking. 

The programme, backed by a recommendation from the UK National Screening Committee, will use patient’s GP records for those aged 55 to 74 to identify current or former smokers.

Many thousands of lives will be saved
Professor Robert Rintoul
Lead Clinician for Cancer, Royal Papworth Hospital NHS Foundation Trust

Royal Papworth Hospital was involved in some of the early research that demonstrated proof of concept for lung cancer screening and that lung cancer screening could be cost-effective.

The UKLS study was run in collaboration with Liverpool University and Liverpool Heart and Chest Hospital, with 50% of the patients (2,000) recruited at Royal Papworth. 

“This is a transformative and hugely significant day for lung cancer care in the UK,” said Professor Rintoul. 

“The announcement of a national screening programme will transform care and many thousands of lives will be saved.

“A decade ago lung cancer survival for five or more years was 7-8%. Now it is 16%. The UK Lung Cancer Coalition’s ambition is that by 2025, 25% of all people diagnosed with lung cancer survive.” 

In addition to a lung cancer screening programme, ongoing research is also vital to further improve patient care and outcomes, including for never smokers. 

Royal Papworth Hospital, working in conjunction with colleagues in the University of Cambridge and biotech companies, are studying several new approaches to early detection of lung cancer in the blood or on the breath.  

One approach with Owlstone Medical involves measuring ‘volatile organic compounds’ in exhaled breath to see if we can distinguish between people with and without lung cancer.  

“Going forward it will be vital to continue research looking at other approaches for lung cancer early detection," added Professor Rintoul. 

“This includes people who have never smoked, who are currently not included in the screening proposals. Further work is required to help identify those never smokers at highest risk to developing lung cancer. 

“In the future it is possible that a combination of cancer ‘biomarkers’ and CT scans will be used to identify people at highest risk. Our ambition is to try to diagnose people with lung cancer at the earliest possible stages as this gives the best chance of long-term cure.”