Revolutionizing Lung Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment with Advances in Interventional Pulmonology

Mohit Chawla, MD, FCCP

Advanced interventional pulmonology (IP) techniques are revolutionizing the diagnosis and treatment of lung cancer. Minimally invasive bronchoscopy allows doctors with specialized training to accurately diagnose and stage lung cancer and to provide less-invasive therapeutic and palliative procedures for patients with malignant airway, pleural space, and lung parenchymal diseases.

At Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK), we have been leading the field of interventional pulmonology since the inception of the IP Section with two attending physicians (www.mskcc.org/IP) in 2008. Our team has pioneered new techniques and collaborated in the development of evidence-based clinical practice guidelines for symptom management in patients with lung cancer, (1) the validation of an examination for doctors training in the field, (2) and most recently, the use of endobronchial ultrasound-guided transbronchial needle aspiration (EBUS-TNBA) for staging cancer. (3)

Our interventional pulmonology experts collaborate with thoracic surgeons, interventional radiologists, radiation oncologists, and medical oncologists in the Thoracic Disease Management Team to develop the optimal diagnostic and treatment plan for each patient, often minimizing the need for multiple invasive procedures. We continue to develop and research new modalities, conduct clinical trials, and advance the field through our training fellowship and continuing medical education courses to train more subspecialists.

Minimally Invasive Procedures

By inserting instrumentation through a bronchoscope, no incisions are required, providing patients with significant advantages compared with standard surgical or percutaneous options: less postoperative pain, faster recovery times, fewer complications and shorter hospital stays. Many procedures are performed on an outpatient basis with low risk.

Interventional pulmonology procedures can relieve symptoms in patients with advanced lung cancers, in some cases allowing them to be taken off ventilators or improving their quality of life so that they can receive additional cancer treatment that may extend survival.
Mohit Chawla
Mohit Chawla Chief, Pulmonary Service; Director, Section of Interventional Pulmonology; Program Director, Interventional Pulmonology Fellowship

EBUS-TNBA involves using ultrasound waves to locate and biopsy lung masses and enlarged lymph nodes near tumors via needle aspiration. Navigational bronchoscopy combines data from CT scans with electromagnetic navigational instruments to identify, biopsy, and treat small peripheral lung lesions.

With therapeutic bronchoscopy, the bronchoscope serves as a conduit for inserting airway stents in patients with collapsed lungs or blocked airways, applying laser ablation to destroy tumor tissue, or treating airway defects.

Pleural space diseases are a common problem when cancer spreads to the chest. Using ultrasound guidance, we can insert indwelling tunnelled pleural catheters, like PleurX, that can be managed at home, perform pleurodesis to seal the pleural space to prevent further fluid accumulation, and perform  to drain fluid and remove scar tissue.

Interventional pulmonology procedures can relieve symptoms in patients with advanced lung cancers, in some cases allowing them to be taken off ventilators or improving their quality of life so that they can receive additional cancer treatment that may extend survival.

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MSK-IMPACT™ Tumor Genetic Profiling Assay

A significant benefit of advanced diagnostic bronchoscopy is that the technique can be used to obtain biopsies of sufficient size for use with MSK-IMPACT™ (integrated mutation profiling of actionable cancer targets), MSK’s genetic-profiling assay that uses high-throughput next-generation sequencing to look for alterations in more than 465 cancer-associated genes and other molecular biomarkers. Developed by MSK’s Department of Pathology, the diagnostic test has been in use since 2014. With it we can rapidly assess a select range of solid tumor types, including lung cancer, and match patients with available targeted treatments or clinical trials for new agents wherever possible. The FDA recently approved MSK-IMPACT™.

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Interventional Pulmonology Research 

We continue to research different modalities and devices for the diagnosis and treatment of pulmonary disorders in patients with malignant diseases, patient outcomes after minimally invasive interventions, the role of oral microbiota in the development of pulmonary disease as a complication following hematologic stem cell transplantation, and other areas, all while minimizing risk and maximizing benefit. We have recently reported data on the first ever use of an absorbable gelatin and thrombin slurry for the bronchoscopic management of airway bleeding.

Radiotherapy is a highly effective treatment for lung cancer, but it can be challenging to deliver consistent therapy to tumor tissue when a patient breathes. MSK is among the first to conduct clinical trials to test the Calypso GPS system as a motion management tool for lung cancer radiation treatments. It has been used successfully for years to treat prostate cancer and is already approved by the FDA for this use. With the Calypso system, tiny beacons about 7.5 millimeters in length are positioned in the lung near the tumor using minimally invasive bronchoscopy. The system triangulates the tumor’s location to ensure that radiation is precisely delivered to tumor tissue. If the patient breathes and the tracking field shifts, radiation is switched off, preventing damage to healthy tissue.

One study is investigating the Calypso system in combination with a deep inspirational breath hold. A second study is testing the system among patients who are not able to hold their breath, with the radiation switching on and off as they breathe normally.

Finally, IP at MSK intends to be one of the first programs to implement the newest robotic technologies for bronchoscopy, which are currently under FDA review. This will greatly enhance our ability to localize lung tumors for diagnosis and, for the first time, reliably treat lung tumors bronchoscopically (4) with thermal therapies, such as radiofrequency ablation or cryoablation.

Robert P. Lee, MD,
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Advancing the Field of Interventional Pulmonology

As a subspecialty, interventional pulmonology requires an extra year of training beyond traditional fellowships in both pulmonary medicine and critical care medicine. To train future leaders in the field, we established the first IP fellowship in New York. In June 2018, we will have graduated four IP fellows. Our IP graduates have all enjoyed success in progressive academic IP programs to which they have greatly contributed to their growth and advancement. In addition, three of our former Pulmonary medicine fellows graduated from subsequent prestigious IP fellowships and all are leading highly successful academic IP programs throughout the country.

We also conduct an accredited annual continuing medical education course called Current Paradigms in Interventional Pulmonology: Endobronchial Ultrasound and Interventional Bronchoscopy; it provides practicing pulmonologists, intensivists, thoracic surgeons, nurses, and technicians with an advanced understanding of EBUS, interventional bronchoscopy, and cytological specimen processing.

IP remains a young field and is solidifying its foundation, to which the Section at MSK has provided substantial progress. There remains a great need for fully trained Interventional Pulmonologists throughout the country, especially in the era of improved utilization of small biopsies by cytopathologists and molecular pathologists (for diagnosis, staging and molecular analysis), enhanced integration and acceptance of palliative care (in all cancers, but especially lung cancer) (5), development of novel therapeutics, such as bronchoscopic ablation of peripheral lung tumors, and lung cancer screening. We look forward to continuing this progress as the Section of IP grows at MSK.

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