Experts at a European conference in Geneva have been looking at ways of improving lung cancer treatment and contributing to patient survival.
Lung cancer is recognised as the leading cause of cancer deaths, with some 1.3 million people diagnosed every year worldwide. In Switzerland, there are around 3,600 new cases and 3,000 deaths annually.
Over the past decade, male lung cancer mortality rates have fallen, while those among women have steadily increased, due to a rise in female smokers.
Despite these gloomy figures, these are exciting times for lung cancer research, according to Rolf Stahel, the conference chair from Zurich University Hospital.
"Over the past three or four years, we have learnt that, rather than being one disease, lung cancer is a set of different diseases with properties that have to be treated individually," he told swissinfo on Friday.
"For years we said there was small-cell lung cancer and another group of non-small-cell lung cancers and we put them all together – same treatment and same theories. But now for the first time we have the option to make a rational choice for better treatment," said Stahel.
Recent advances have also led to increased cancer prevention and improved patient quality of life, say experts.
However, the biggest unsolved problem is how to improve the prognosis of someone with lung cancer and come up with even better treatments, said Stahel.
More than 1,200 delegates took part in the four-day European Lung Cancer Conference that ended on Saturday, with many findings being presented for the first time.
Paul Bunn, director of the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer, was particularly thrilled about MAGE-A3 ASCI (Antigen-Specific Cancer Immunotherapeutic), an immune-boosting treatment for lung cancer patients that reduces the risk of relapse after surgery.
"For a long time we've wanted to have vaccines to improve survival after early-stage lung cancer," he explained. "The majority of patients operated on still fail and the lung cancer comes back after the tumours have been removed," said the American professor.
This will be a huge breakthrough if it is successfully trialled, he added.
Experts agree that smoking is by far the most important factor that contributes to the development of lung cancer, accounting for up to 85 per cent of cases, but other factors can play a role.
Scientists from the University of Louisville, United States, presented evidence that two common viruses may be behind some cases of lung cancer: human papilloma virus (HPV), already recognized as a cause of cervical cancer, and the measles virus.
Experts acknowledge that there are big variations in lung cancer survival rates across Europe, largely down to the different healthcare systems and how early patients come in to be screened.
"Switzerland is doing very well," said Stahel. "Our problem is we lack a real national cancer centre. We are very fragmented with the cantons and hospitals."
"For lung cancer every patient should have their case discussed at a tumour board with more than one specialist. If this is not the case the best treatment is not guaranteed. We have a very good system, but it doesn't mean that we can't do better."
For his part, Bunn is particularly disappointed by non-smoking regulations in Switzerland, which make it "lag behind Europe and the rest of the world".
"It's disappointing to come here and go to restaurants and hotels where smoking is allowed," he said.
"It does surprise me that there are not more smoking regulations in Switzerland. If they can introduce them in Ireland where pubs have been full of smoke for years it would seem reasonable that it could happen in Switzerland."
swissinfo, Simon Bradley in Geneva
After cardiovascular diseases, cancer accounts for the second-highest number of deaths in Switzerland; 28% of men and 22% of women die from the disease.
Every year, 31,000 new cases of cancer are recorded in Switzerland, and 15,000 cancer-related deaths. There are around 3,600 new cases of lung cancer and 3,000 lung-cancer-related deaths annually.
Worldwide, cancer kills 11 million people a year (12.5% of all deaths).
Some 1.3 million people are diagnosed with lung cancer every year, making it the leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide.
Cigarette smoking is the cause of nearly all lung cancers. One in ten lung cancers occur in non-smokers. But in a number if cases, exposure to passive smoke may be a cause.
If a person stops smoking the risk of lung cancer is greatly reduced, so that after about 15 years the chances of developing the disease are similar to that of a non-smoker.
Symptoms include: a persistent cough or change in the nature of a longstanding cough, shortness of breath; coughing up blood-stained phlegm (sputum); chest discomfort; loss of appetite and weight.
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