Q&A about LAM and Cancer

by Elizabeth Henske, MD

Is LAM a Type of Cancer?

LAM cells have several striking similarities to cancer cells. These similarities include:

    • The excess growth of LAM cells
    • Activation of cellular pathways in LAM cells that are often also activated in cancer cells (including the mTOR pathway and lymphatic vessel growth)
    • The hypothesis that LAM cells can spread, or metastasize, to the lung and to lymph nodes and other sitesHowever, under the microscope, LAM cells generally do not appear to be cancerous. Also, LAM does not behave like a typical cancer.
    • In contrast to cancer, LAM does not spread to organs such as the liver and brain.
    • Unlike cancer, LAM often progresses slowly over many years.
    • Although LAM cells have similarities to cancer cells, whether LAM should be considered a form of cancer is debatable.

We’ve always been told in the past that LAM is NOT cancer. What has changed?

Each year, our knowledge about LAM increases significantly. Many of the most recent biochemical and cellular advances involve similarities between LAM and cancer.

Can LAM be treated with the same drugs used to treat cancer?

It is very possible that some drugs used to treat cancer will also be useful in treating LAM. This is a very exciting and promising area of research. A relatively uncommon disease like LAM can benefit tremendously from drug development for common diseases, like cancer.The “targeted” cancer therapy approach is now being used for several types of cancer. Targeted cancer drugs act specifically on the abnormal biochemical pathway in the cancer cells and often have only mild side effects.These targeted therapies may be useful for the treatment of LAM. Currently, there is no evidence that women with LAM would benefit from other cancer treatments such as radiation therapy or chemotherapy.

Am I at greater risk of getting cancer since I have LAM?

To my knowledge, women with LAM are not at greater risk of getting cancer.

Are LAM and Cancer Researchers Working Together?

Cancer and LAM researchers have been working together for many years, and each year more cancer researchers become involved in LAM research. Many scientists strongly believe that LAM research will help us understand cancer, and cancer research will help us understand LAM.

What is the bottom line on LAM and cancer?

LAM cells and cancer cells have both similarities and differences. Whether or not LAM should be categorized as a type of cancer is controversial. LAM research is already benefiting from advances in cancer research. In the future, women with LAM are likely to benefit from advances in “targeted” cancer therapy.

About Dr. Elizabeth Henske, MD

Dr. Elizabeth Henske serves as the Director of the Center for LAM Research & Clinical Care at Brigham & Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School. She earned her undergraduate degree summa cum laude from Yale University, where she majored in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, and her MD degree from Harvard Medical School. She completed her Residency in Internal Medicine and Fellowship in Hematology/Oncology at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, followed by post-doctoral training in the laboratory of David Kwiatkowski at the Brigham & Women’s Hospital. She is a member of the American Society of Clinical Investigation, serves on the Board of Directors of the Tuberous Sclerosis Alliance, and Chairs the NIH Study Section “Cellular and Molecular Biology of the Kidney.” Dr. Henske’s research currently focuses on the cellular mechanisms through which mutations in the tuberous sclerosis complex (TSC) genes lead to tumor formation and LAM.