Research into lung cancer early diagnosis and screening

Researchers around the world are looking at better ways to diagnose lung cancer.

Go to Cancer Research UK’s clinical trials database if you are looking for a trial for lung cancer in the UK. You need to talk to your specialist if there are any trials that you think you might be able to take part in.

We need better tests to diagnose lung cancer earlier. All new tests need to be researched so we can be sure they work better than the tests we already use. We also need to know that they are safe.


Screening means testing people for early stages of a disease before they have any symptoms.

There is no national screening programme for lung cancer in the UK. But the NHS will be offering Lung Health Checks in some areas of England from Autumn 2019.

There are other research projects on lung screening taking place in other areas of England.

Researchers are interested in the best ways of encouraging people at high risk of lung cancer to have a lung check. And they want to find a better way of supporting GPs to refer patients to lung cancer specialists.

Researchers are also looking into the psychological impact of lung screening. They hope to guide healthcare professionals to promote people’s wellbeing and minimise distress and worry.


Researchers are looking for proteins in blood, breath, urine and tissue samples to see if any are linked to lung cancer. They hope to one day develop a blood or urine test to show up these proteins (biomarkers) to:

  • diagnose lung cancer more easily
  • spot lung cancer earlier if it comes back after treatment

DNA tests for diagnosis

DNA stands for DeoxyriboNucleic Acid. Genes are made of DNA. DNA is the genetic code that controls how the body's cells behave by controlling the type of protein they make.

A lung cancer tumour can shed tiny pieces of DNA into the blood. This is called circulating tumour DNA (ctDNA).

Scientists want to see if they can find ctDNA to help them diagnose early stage non small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). The earlier a cancer is diagnosed, the greater the chance of the treatment working well.

Looking inside the airways

Doctors use a test called a bronchoscopy to diagnose lung cancer. A bronchoscopy uses a tube to look into the airways.

Scientists are looking at a different type of bronchoscopy, called auto fluorescence imaging video bronchoscopy. Researchers hope that the difference between cancer tissue and healthy tissue will show up more clearly, so lung cancer is diagnosed earlier.


Researchers are interested in the difference between lung sounds in people with and without lung disease. They hope this could improve diagnosis of lung cancer in future.


At the moment doctors often use CT scans (computed tomography scan) to diagnose lung cancer. They can also show whether the cancer has spread outside the lung.

Researchers are testing different scans such as:

  • dynamic CT scan – this shows up the blood vessels and blood flow better than a normal CT scan
  • positron emission tomography (PET) scan
  • whole body magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan
  • PET-CT scans, which combine a PET scan and a CT scan

Scientists are interested in which scan:

  • is best at diagnosing early lung cancer
  • gives better information about the size of the lung cancer
  • reduces the number of scans people need before their diagnosis


A study team is looking at developing a patient questionnaire to help identify symptoms of lung cancer.

Doctors often diagnose lung cancer at a late stage. The earlier lung cancer is diagnosed, the better the chance it may be cured. Even if not cured, people may have a better chance of living longer.

When people have new and ongoing chest symptoms, like a cough or shortness of breath, GPs do a chest x-ray to see if there is anything abnormal.

The researchers want to develop a questionnaire about the symptoms of people who are referred for a chest x-ray. To do this they need to ask people about their health and why they are having a chest x-ray.

The researchers hope to use this questionnaire in a larger trial to see if it can help identify lung cancer.

Cancer Research UK clinical trials database

We have information on trials looking at improving diagnosis of lung cancer on our clinical trials database.

When in the trials database, click on both the recruiting and closed tabs at the top of the page.

Last reviewed: 
16 Jan 2019
  • Cancer Research UK Clinical Trials Database
    Accessed November 2019

  • Clinical Trials Database

    Accessed November 2019

  • Value of Autofluorescence Imaging Videobronchoscopy in Detecting Lung Cancers and Precancerous Lesions: A Review

    Qing He and others

    Respiratory Care, 2013. Volume 58, Issue 12

  • Detection of early lung cancer: Autofluorescence bronchoscopy and investigational modalities

    UpToDate 2019

  • The Lung Screen Uptake Trial (LSUT): protocol for a randomised controlled demonstration lung cancer screening pilot testing a targeted invitation strategy for high risk and ‘hard-to-reach’ patients

    SL Quaife and others

    BMC Cancer, 2016. Volume 16

  • Abstract IA14: Circulating tumor DNA in early-stage NSCLC: A lung TRACERx study

    Christopher Abbosh

    Clinical Cancer Research, 2018. Volume 24, Issue 17

Related links