From grant writing to groundbreaking: Dr. Rubén Pío’s lung cancer research journey

How can we ensure vibrant new approaches to cancer prevention and early detection continue to emerge?

We do it by supporting early-career scientists. Not only does this provide what is oftentimes the first funding source to a scientist, but it also supports the most promising new research so we can continue discovering important advances in cancer prevention and early detection to help you (yes, you!) achieve better outcomes for your health.

Nearly 20 years ago, Rubén Pío, Pharm.D. Ph.D., was a researcher at the start of his career, eager to explore the intricacies of lung cancer. Today, he serves as the Scientific Director of the Cancer Center Clínica Universidad de Navarra in Pamplona, Spain. We sat down with Dr. Pío to talk about his early funding from the Prevent Cancer Foundation in 2004, how it led him to where he is today and what’s new and next for lung cancer screening and prevention.

What initially drew you to lung cancer research? 

When I got my Ph.D., it was clear to me that I wanted to dedicate my professional life to bridging the gap between scientific discovery and patient care. Cancer, which remains a major global health issue, seemed a good option for that. Over the last 20+ years, my work has focused on translational research in lung cancer so we can turn research into results that directly benefit humans. I still get up every morning determined to advance our understanding of lung cancer and translate this into a significant improvement in the lives of lung cancer patients.

What did you study in the project funded by the Prevent Cancer Foundation? 

During my time as a postdoctoral fellow at the National Cancer Institute, I identified a protein from the immune system (factor H), with the capacity to regulate the activity of a factor important for cancer growth. This protein belonged to a part of the immune system not well studied in cancer, known as the complement system. In the project funded by the Foundation, I studied the function of factor H and other complement-related proteins in lung cancer progression to identify the potential use of these proteins for early diagnosis of lung cancer.  

Nowadays, screening programs using CT scans are in place for high-risk individuals. Molecular markers, such as those released from complement activation, may be used to better identify who should be screened. This would improve early detection, and early detection is the best strategy to improve the survival of lung cancer patients.

How did the funding provided by the Prevent Cancer Foundation contribute to your career trajectory as an independent cancer researcher?

This funding deeply affected my research career and allowed me to establish myself as an independent researcher. The prestige of this grant also helped me to obtain additional funding that further reinforced my position as a principal investigator. I am deeply grateful to the Prevent Cancer Foundation for that. 

I am still working on the research area proposed in the project. We have made some important advances in the field, including new treatment combinations that have reached clinical testing and the development of diagnostic tools that we are now validating for lung cancer early detection.

How has lung cancer screening changed over the last 20 years?

Twenty years ago, few people believed that lung cancer screening could help achieve better outcomes. However, in the late 1990s, researchers started testing computed tomography (CT), which made it possible to get better images with less radiation exposure.  

The Early Lung Cancer Action Project (ELCAP) was the first trial that demonstrated the benefit of CT scans for lung cancer screening. The Universidad de Navarra joined the ELCAP trial in the early 2000s, as a member of the International-ELCAP (I-ELCAP). We were the first hospital in Spain to use CT for lung cancer detection. 

Subsequent randomized trials in the U.S. and abroad confirmed an overall lung cancer mortality reduction of at least 20%. 

LEARN MORE | Prevent Cancer Foundation’s Quantitative Imaging Workshop 

What other preventive measures can people take to reduce the risk of lung cancer?

Avoiding tobacco products is the most important factor in reducing the risk of lung cancer. There are also additional lifestyle choices and preventive measures you can adopt to further decrease your risk, such as avoiding exposure to carcinogens including radon, asbestos or secondhand smoke, and limiting alcohol consumption. Adopting a healthy and balanced diet and regular physical activity can also contribute to overall well-being and potentially reduce cancer risk. 

For individuals at high-risk, such as people who currently smoke or used to smoke, getting routine lung cancer screening with chest CT can detect lung cancer at earlier, more treatable stages.

How have you seen lung cancer diagnosis and screening rates affected by the high smoking prevalence in Europe?

Despite the implementation of tobacco control programs, the prevalence of smoking in Europe is still very high. Around 20% of the European Union (EU) population smokes daily. In the EU, we have an annual lung cancer incidence rate of about 70 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, and the lung cancer mortality rate for 2023 is predicted to be around 250,000. Smoking trends play a large role in how lung cancer incidence and mortality rates evolve. For example, in Spain, where tobacco use by women was introduced later than in Northern European countries, lung cancer incidence almost triples that from twenty years ago. 

The European Commission, similar to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, has recommended the introduction of screening for people who currently smoke or used to smoke and who meet criteria related to smoking habits and age. Nevertheless, the implementation of lung cancer screening in Europe is encountering several challenges, such as resource constraints and varying health care systems, which contribute to disparities in screening availability. 

The Cassandra, a national pilot project supported by nine scientific societies, aims to provide evidence on the feasibility of lung cancer screening in Spain, so it can one day be implemented in the National Health System to bring more screenings to more people.

Why is it important to support lung cancer research?

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths globally. Adequate funding is essential to develop effective prevention, early detection and treatment strategies to improve patient outcomes and reduce the overall impact of the disease.  

Lung cancer is a complex disease that requires robust research efforts to pave the way for targeted therapies and personalized medicine approaches. At the end of the day, if we can study and uncover more about this disease, we can discover better outcomes and reduce the burden of lung cancer on our society. With research, we can save lives! 


Support the next generation of scientists making a difference in cancer prevention and early detection research. Learn more about the Prevent Cancer Foundation’s research grant and fellowship program and help jump-start their careers today.