Researchers Tie Genes to Nicotine Addiction, Cancer Risk
> 4/2/2008 12:57:04 PM

A trio of studies released this week shed light on the issue of genes and their relationship to nicotine addiction and lung cancer. While the three experiments came to slightly different conclusions, taken together they illustrate the role that genetic variants play in determining an individuals risk for becoming addicted to nicotine and developing lung cancer. Each of the studies examined cohorts of smokers and ex-smokers, and some compared these groups to non-smokers. Using a DNA scanning technique, researchers in each case identified an area on chromosome 15 that correlated with lung cancer cases. Chromosome 15 had previously been found to relate to a person's vulnerability to nicotine addiction, and one of the three studies reconfirmed this.

Using a technique known as genome-wide association, researchers assessed over 30,000 individuals from around the world to arrive at their conclusions. Specifically, the groups found that those with the identified gene variant who also smoke may be as much as 80% more likely to develop lung cancer than those without the variant. Some evidence indicates that there could also be an increased risk of the disease even among non-smokers who have the genetic makeup. The correlation with smoking was observed because many of the subjects who had multiple copies of the cancer-correlated allele were also more addicted to nicotine than those with only one allele or with no alleles.

"These results suggest for the first time that a single genetic variant not only can predispose to nicotine addiction but may also increase sensitivity to extremely serious smoking-related diseases," NIDA Director Dr. Nora Volkow explained in an Institute release. "Additionally, it points to potential targets for new smoking-cessation medications that may be more effective at helping smokers to quit."

It is this second point that has been creating the most buzz since the news broke yesterday, as researchers can now begin to focus more attention on chromosome 15 in hopes of developing any number of new treatments. Smoking cessation remains a daunting prospect for millions of smokers worldwide, and this new information points to a potential genetic component as to why this is the case. A better understanding of the genetic elements with a role to play in nicotine addiction could lead to more effective treatments, and eventually healthier ex-smokers.

The observed link between nicotine addiction and lung cancer should also help further the public's understanding of nicotine's carcinogenic nature. Even without a deeper understanding of the genetic mechanisms behind this link, the link itself is quite strong. Genes may play a part in deciding an individual's cancer risk, but smoking behaviors still have a tremendous part to play.

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