Background: Low-dose computed tomography (CT) for lung cancer screening can reduce lung cancer mortality. The National Lung Screening Trial reported a 20% reduction in lung cancer mortality in high-risk smokers. However, CT scanning is extremely sensitive and detects non-calcified nodules (NCNs) in 24-50% of subjects, suggesting an unacceptably high false-positive rate. We hypothesized that by reviewing demographic, clinical and nodule characteristics, we could identify risk factors associated with the presence of nodules on screening CT, and with the probability that a NCN was malignant.
Methods: We performed a longitudinal lung cancer biomarker discovery trial (NYU LCBC) that included low-dose CT-screening of high-risk individuals over 50 years of age, with more than 20 pack-year smoking histories, living in an urban setting, and with a potential for asbestos exposure. We used case-control studies to identify risk factors associated with the presence of nodules (n=625) versus no nodules (n=557), and lung cancer patients (n=30) versus benign nodules (n=128).
Results: The NYU LCBC followed 1182 study subjects prospectively over a 10-year period. We found 52% to have NCNs >4 mm on their baseline screen. Most of the nodules were stable, and 9.7% of solid and 26.2% of sub-solid nodules resolved. We diagnosed 30 lung cancers, 26 stage I. Three patients had synchronous primary lung cancers or multifocal disease. Thus, there were 33 lung cancers: 10 incident, and 23 prevalent. A sub-group of the prevalent group were stable for a prolonged period prior to diagnosis. These were all stage I at diagnosis and 12/13 were adenocarcinomas.
Conclusions: NCNs are common among CT-screened high-risk subjects and can often be managed conservatively. Risk factors for malignancy included increasing age, size and number of nodules, reduced FEV1 and FVC, and increased pack-years smoking. A sub-group of screen-detected cancers are slow-growing and may contribute to over-diagnosis and lead-time biases.