Any cancer is scary, but lung cancer is a particularly insidious disease – symptoms typically don’t occur until the cancer has spread. Because of this, the five-year survival rate is less than 18%. It’s not hard to imagine how many lives could be saved through an early detection screening program.

That was the inspiration behind a $1.2 million gift from philanthropists Emily and Jason Ko. Their transformational gift supports a Lung Cancer Screening Pilot Program at VGH. The pilot program pioneers a new model for lung cancer screening for British Columbians and is the first large scale pilot project of its kind in North America. The program hopes to lead to changes in clinical care and the formation of public policy in lung cancer screening and early detection.

CT scanners can help diagnose lung cancer at an earlier stage, notes Dr. John Yee.

For Jason, a well-known business leader from Taiwan, this issue hits close to home. His wife, Emily, was a thoracic surgery Head Nurse and has seen first-hand the devastating effects of lung cancer, particularly in patients who had never smoked. This was one of the reasons why Jason and his family felt so compelled to act. “Lung cancer has affected many of my friends who are non-smokers and this was our way of helping save lives so that others can receive care earlier,” says Jason, who was inspired by the spirit of giving from his late mother. As successful immigrants, the Kos believe that their legacy is in sharing their wealth with the community and giving back to help others, a philosophy that they share with their family and employees at their company Viva Pharmaceutical.

“Lung cancer has affected many of my friends who are non-smokers and this was our way of helping save lives so that others can receive care earlier” – Jason and Emily Ko

Like other cancers, early detection can mean the difference between a treatable disease or palliative care. “We know that low-dose CT scans help diagnose lung cancer at an earlier stage and can reduce lung cancer mortality by up to 20%,” says Dr. John Yee, Head of Thoracic Surgery at VGH and Director of the BC Lung Transplant Program. “There’s no question that our ability to detect lung cancer earlier will have a tremendous impact on people’s health.”

The screening program will enroll 2,000 high-risk individuals over a three-year period with a two-year follow-up. The study is international in scope and examines the value of inclusion of air pollution exposures for risk assessment. It also applies advanced computer technology with the goal of improving efficiency and accuracy of reading large number of screening CT scans, as well as decreasing unnecessary imaging studies or biopsies. The results are expected to help drive the development of a province-wide screening program and will contribute to the medical research community across Canada and globally, noted Dr. Stephen Lam, a specialist in lung cancer and co-leader of the Lung Cancer Screening Program.

With more than 1.6 million people worldwide dying each year from lung cancer, the impact of the Ko family’s generosity in funding this important screening program is truly global.