Massey pulmonologist hopes to develop blood-based tests for early detection of lung cancer
Massey pulmonologist and cancer researcher Patrick Nana-Sinkam, M.D., F.C.C.P., studies genetic biomarkers as a means of developing novel blood-based tests for the early detection of lung cancer and potentially improving overall patient outcomes through the use of new targeted therapies. Nana-Sinkam joined VCU Massey Cancer Center as a member of the Cancer Cell Signaling and Cancer Prevention and Control research programs in September 2016. He also serves as chair of and professor in the Division of Pulmonary Disease and Critical Care Medicine of the Department of Internal Medicine at the VCU School of Medicine.
The National Cancer Institute estimated there were a total of 224,390 new lung cancer diagnoses in 2016, and the disease is responsible for more than one-fourth of all cancer-related deaths.
For Nana-Sinkam, the future of lung cancer treatment is in early detection. “One of the staggering statistics about lung cancer is that only about 20 percent of individuals who are diagnosed with the disease receive their diagnosis when they are at an early, curable stage. If 80 percent of the people diagnosed already have late-stage lung cancer, which is usually incurable, then it is very difficult to ever make a real difference in patient outcomes,” he said.
After completing his pulmonary and critical care training at the University of Colorado, Nana-Sinkam became attracted to diseases for which there are relatively few cures or that tend to be largely overlooked by the medical research community.
In particular, he was drawn to lung cancer because it was the leading cause of cancer-related death, but it wasn’t receiving widespread attention through the research lens. At the time, treatment options for lung cancer were also fairly limited, and the concept of using targeted therapies based on individual genetic composition was unpopular.
His current research at Massey is specifically directed toward the analysis of exosomes, small particles released by human cells based on different stimuli that help transfer genetic information to other cells.
Previous research conducted by Nana-Sinkam indicated that people with lung cancer possess a unique set of particles, or biomarkers, with alternative genetic information than people without lung cancer. He has demonstrated that the application of cancerous particles to normal, non-cancerous cells forces those cells to adapt to the behavior of the cancerous cell. This evidence suggests that there are genetic instructions being absorbed by the recipient cell, and interfering with that cellular communication could be viewed as a potential target for a novel lung cancer therapy. His continued efforts focus on how to better characterize and identify these biomarkers.
Nana-Sinkam holds a U01 grant from the National Cancer Institute, through which he hopes to develop a blood-based biomarker classifier to distinguish small cell lung cancer patients from high-risk smokers. This classifier would provide a non-invasive method to determine risk, diagnose the disease and monitor treatment response.
“I am very interested in understanding what we can do to identify individuals who are at risk for lung cancer. And as a result, identify those lung cancers where a patient doesn’t have any symptoms yet, but has an indolent or hidden lung cancer that may eventually take their life without early treatment,” Nana-Sinkam said.
Nana-Sinkam attended medical school at Wake Forest University and completed his residency at the University of Michigan. He underwent subspecialty training at the University of Colorado, where he remained for two additional years as a faculty member. Prior to his role at VCU, he lived with his family in Columbus, Ohio, for 10 years while he was a faculty member at Ohio State University.
Having grown up and attended high school in Alexandria, a return to Virginia was a welcome migration to be near much of his family, as well as to become a part of an esteemed academic medical institution. “I was compelled by the opportunity to join a pulmonary and critical care division, as well as a cancer center, that were rapidly growing and expanding and had a tremendous amount of potential to emerge as leaders in their respective fields. It was too good to pass up,” he said.
In partnership with the VCU Department of Radiology, Nana-Sinkam operates a brand new lung cancer screening clinic at VCU Health Stony Point. The clinic allows patients to receive consultation, an on site screening CT scan, results discussion and smoking cessation support in one setting.
Over the course of the next decade, he hopes to see the Division of Pulmonary Disease and Critical Care Medicine transform into a destination program for patients seeking first-line medical care and clinical trial options.
Nana-Sinkam serves as the associate director of the Center for Clinical Translational Research at VCU, and he is an editorial board member for several peer-reviewed academic journals, including the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine and the Journal of Thoracic Oncology. His research has been published in more than 65 peer-reviewed journals, including Cancer Research, Genome Biology and Nature Protocols.
Along with his wife and 12-year-old son, Nana-Sinkam is settling into the Richmond community and molding an appreciation for its geographic proximity to the beach, mountains and nation’s capital. He also enjoys the city’s healthy soccer culture, as he and his son held season tickets for the Columbus Crew before moving from Ohio.
Nana-Sinkam’s family established the SINKAM Charles Foundation, which promotes social, cultural and economic development in the Cameroonian village of Bangou and its geographic surroundings.