What is EGFR-positive lung cancer and how is it treated?

EGFR stands for epidermal growth factor receptor. EGFR is a protein expressed on the surface of cells. It is most commonly found on cells on the skin, although it can be found elsewhere in the body. An EGFR mutation (or biomarker) can negatively affect how the EGFR protein functions.

How the EGFR mutation works

EGFR’s job is to help cells grow and divide. In the case of EGFR-positive non small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), a mutation, or damage, in a gene causes the EGFR to remain stuck in the “on” position. This “drives” abnormal cell growth, which is what cancer is.

EGFR is important in many cancers, including lung cancer. It was the first biomarker identified as a potential “target” for personalized treatments in lung cancer. EGFR-positive lung cancer is more common in certain populations, such as:

  • people who have never smoked or only smoked a little.
  • people with lung adenocarcinoma
  • women
  • young adults with lung cancer (EGFR mutations are present in roughly 50 percent of lung cancers in young adults).
  • people of Asian or East Asian heritage

Watch Dr. Natasha Leighl of Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto discusses the EGFR mutation in lung cancer with patient and advocate Jill Feldman in the intro Hope With Answers℠ video. Then watch Dr. Natasha Leighl discusses more details of the EGFR mutation in lung cancer with patient and advocate Ivy Elkins.

Testing for the EGFR mutation

Comprehensive biomarker testing can determine whether an EGFR lung cancer mutation or another lung cancer mutation is present. If you receive a lung cancer diagnosis, the very first thing you should do is make sure your doctors have ordered comprehensive biomarker testing done on your lung cancer tumor. In addition to having this key testing done, you should have the results before starting any treatment, including chemo and/or immunotherapy.

The comprehensive biomarker testing will involve a biopsy of your lung cancer. This biopsy removes tissue. The tissue is then tested for its genetic makeup, or biomarkers. In most cases, biomarker testing can use the same tissue that was obtained during the original biopsy.  (The biopsy which was used to diagnosing the lung cancer.)

Remember These Important Points to Biomarker Testing

A blood biopsy is especially effective in detecting the presence of EGFR NSCLC. This biopsy can be performed before comprehensive biomarker testing. If the blood biopsy shows positive for an EGFR mutation, then the patient can be started on an EGFR inhibitor.

But, in all other instances, it is important to have comprehensive biomarker testing.

Lung Cancer Testing FAQ

Where can I go for Comprehensive Biomarker Testing?

NCI-Designated Comprehensive Cancer Centers and other academic centers are excellent choices for and have experience in comprehensive biomarker testing. You can also have the testing done by a commercial lab recommended by your physician.

What are the treatment options?

Once the biomarker testing is complete, and EGFR-positive lung cancer determined, there are many treatment options available. If your lung cancer hasn’t yet spread and it’s in an early stage, you might be a candidate for surgery to have the lung cancer completely removed. If not, the lung cancer can be treated with a targeted therapy, which is commonly a pill, taken by mouth.

Many effective EGFR-positive treatments are available that have proven to be effective treatments for many patients. These targeted therapies have been approved by the FDA for EGFR-positive lung cancer. Drugs called EGFR inhibitors can block (or target) the signal from EGFR that tells the cells to grow.

These are the current FDA-approved Targeted Therapies that treat EGFR-positive lung cancer:

Are Clinical Trials an option?

Clinical trials are sometimes great options for patients with EGFR-positive lung cancer. If you are accepted into a clinical trial, you will be assigned to a treatment group. You will either receive an investigational drug or you will be randomized to receive the investigational drug or the best standard of care. The specifics of the clinical trial depend on whether you are in a first-in-human trial or a later phase trial. (Best standard of care is the best treatment that physicians are offering patients with that cancer.)

In addition, the care that is included in the clinical trial will be covered financially by the trial sponsor, and you may receive a new treatment that might become a best option for you. There may also be additional expenses that might not be covered by the trial sponsor, so please carefully read the Informed Consent agreement. Discuss any concerns with a trial coordinator prior to making your decision.

How can I find a Clinical Trial?

Here are 2 ways to find clinical trials – working with your doctor, you might get a jump on a new and better treatment even before it is available to others. This can accelerate medical breakthroughs for everyone and helps to increase EGFR positive lung cancer life expectancy.

Search for Clinical Trials with Antidote Match™

Antidote Match™ connects people with medical research studies, in the fastest and easiest way possible. All you need to do is answer a few questions, and they will find the right trials for you. You gain access to the latest medical developments and world-class care.

ClinicalTrials.gov image

Search for Clinical Trials at ClinicalTrials.gov

ClinicalTrials.gov is a database of privately and publicly funded clinical studies conducted around the world.

Is immunotherapy an option for EGFR-positive lung cancer?

Experts see that people with EGFR mutation positive lung cancer most often have immune systems that are already working well. This means that immunotherapy isn’t as helpful for EGFR as it is for other lung cancers where the immune system has been compromised. However, researchers are conducting ongoing studies in immunotherapy for EGFR-positive lung cancer patients. These studies show some promising results.

What About Combination Therapy as an EGFR-positive Treatment?

Combination therapy is the combined use of different treatment options to treat one disease and is an exciting new treatment option for EGFR-positive lung cancer. Although very new, it is showing some promise as an effective treatment for adult non small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) patients. One type of combination therapy combines an immunotherapy drug with specific chemotherapy drugs. Results are encouraging. Lung cancer patients who would benefit from combination therapy are:

  • patients who have not had treatment for their metastatic disease before
  • patients with an EGFR mutation or ALK-positive lung cancer who have failed on a previous targeted therapy

EGFR Lung Cancer Prognosis

“Nobody wants to have lung cancer. But, the truth is, that if you’re going to have lung cancer, EGFR lung cancer patients have the most hope, I think, of all patients with lung cancer. It means that people with EGFR-positive lung cancer have a real chance to have targeted therapies, to avoid chemotherapy, and to live longer, and to live better lives.”

~ Dr. Natasha Leighl, Princess Margaret Hospital, Toronto, CA
Photo of Natasha Leighl


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Follow the hopeful stories of EGFR-positive lung cancer survivors: Frank McKenna, Jill Feldman, and Ivy Elkins.


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