Genetic Variations Raise Lung Cancer Risk for Smokers and Ex-Smokers

Style News Wire | 4/17/2008, 6:17 p.m.
Two common inherited genetic variations are associated with increased risk of lung cancer for smokers and former smokers, a research ...

“This is the first study to identify a common genetic variant that influences the risk for developing lung cancer,” said lead author Chris Amos, Ph.D., professor in M. D. Anderson’s Department of Epidemiology. The variants are present in about half of the Caucasian population studied.

The paper is one of three published by Nature this week from three unique teams that have identified the same genetic locus as associated with increased lung cancer risk. The findings are a major step forward in identifying those at high risk for non-small cell lung cancer and for understanding how smoking and genetic factors interact to cause the disease.

“The major risk factor for developing lung cancer is cigarette smoking,” Amos said. “What we do not understand is why some long-term smokers develop lung cancer and others don’t. There are so many different cancer-causing compounds in tobacco smoke that it’s hard to separate them and we don’t fully understand the mechanisms that cause lung cancer.”

While all smokers and former smokers are at higher risk for lung cancer, less than 20 percent of these “ever smokers” eventually develop the disease. “We need to get a better handle on how genetic factors increase risk and what molecular pathways are involved in development of lung cancer,” Amos said.

The research team, comprising scientists from M. D. Anderson, Johns Hopkins University, and the Institute for Cancer Research and the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, pinpointed two spots of genetic variation on chromosome 15.

The two variants are single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs, pronounced “snips”), places in the human genome that vary by a single DNA chemical building block or nucleotide. Individuals who have ever smoked and who have one or two copies of either of these SNPs have increased risks ranging from 28 percent to 81 percent of developing lung cancer, the researchers found.

The team’s findings might also provide support for a growing body of evidence suggesting that nicotine, long known as the prime addictive compound in cigarettes, might also play a direct causative role in the development of lung cancer.

There are five genes in the area of chromosome 15 where the two risk-raising SNPs were identified, Amos explained. Of those, three are nicotine acetylcholine receptor genes that encode proteins that serve as docking sites to which nicotine can bind.

“Once bound, these receptors set in motion a cascade of signals. Nicotine is known to activate cell proliferation, new blood vessel development and growth factors while upregulating several signaling pathways. If these are indeed causal genes, that will be of great interest,” Amos said.

Another potential causative gene in the area is one that encodes a component of the proteasome, which degrades other proteins. The function of the fifth gene has yet to be identified.

Further studies with additional SNPs in African-American populations who show different SNP patterns may help to define which of these five genes causes lung cancer. Collaborations with both M. D. Anderson’s Lung SPORE and the Kleberg Center for Molecular Markers will evaluate whether these SNPs influence expression of any of these five genes in lung cancers and normal lung tissue, Amos said.