In the northern Illinois city of Rockford, the fifth largest in the state, University of Illinois Cancer Center member Neelu Puri, PhD, is on a mission to convince current and former smokers to be screened for lung cancer with low-dose CT (LDCT) scans in the hope that lung cancer is caught early. Survival rates for lung cancer decline the later it is diagnosed.
Through her Northern Illinois Lung Cancer Screening Project, Puri and her team partner with local hospitals, attend community events, appear on local media, and maintain an active Facebook presence to educate communities about screening and connect them with providers. Puri and her team have collaborated with local and federal organizations, including the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) of Rockford, Love Rockford, the Mexican Consulate, Connect Rockford and hospital systems including UW Health, Mercy Health and OSF St. Anthony.
Lung Cancer Prevalence and Screening
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in Illinois, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health’s 2022-2027 Illinois Comprehensive Cancer Control Plan. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends annual screening for lung cancer with LDCT in adults ages 50 to 80 who have a 20 pack-year smoking history and currently smoke or have quit within the past 15 years.
In Winnebago County, where Rockford is located, the lung cancer incidence rate is 16% higher than the national rate of 57.3 diagnosed lung cancer patients per 100,000 population cumulative from 2014 to 2018. The 2020 mortality rate of lung cancer in Winnebago is 26% higher than the national rate of 31.8 deaths due to lung cancer per 100,000 people, according to data from the Illinois Department of Public Health, the American Cancer Society and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Puri proudly reports that since 2015, more than 4,500 smokers have been screened, more than 1,400 patients with nodules were followed, and at least 81 cases of lung cancer were detected and about 60% were early stage cases.
In addition to Rockford, the screening project focuses on surrounding areas including Boone County and the rural counties Stephenson and Ogle. Puri’s work is focused on underserved populations where lung cancer incidence rates can be high and survival rates low, especially among Black men.
The Future of Lung Cancer Research
Increasing LDCT screenings isn’t the only focus of Puri’s work. She hopes research by her and her team on blood biomarkers can one day create another way to diagnose lung cancer early before it spreads using a blood test with biomarkers.
The Cancer Center has helped to fund Puri’s work through a Community Outreach and Engagement Seed Grant. Puri, part of the Cancer Center’s Translational Oncology research program, is an associate professor at the University of Illinois College of Medicine Rockford in the Department of Biomedical Sciences. The Seed Grant has allowed Puri and her team to contact 655 people about their work on biomarkers and LDCT screening.