Gene Mutations Contribute to Lung Cancer Risk

For people with a certain genetic pattern, even light cigarette use increases lung cancer risk, increases nicotine dependence, and makes it harder to quit.

Focus article photo

Genome: Unlocking Life's Code, interactive display at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC shows how genetics, environment, and random chance play into risk factors for specific diseases. (Credit: Evidence Design)

A new exhibit opening this month at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, gives people a hands-on opportunity to learn about the many contributing forces in the history of the human genome project and its impact on how we understand our health and the world around us. A section of the exhibit that focuses on lung cancer draws on the work of Christopher Amos, PhD, associate director of Population Sciences at Norris Cotton Cancer Center and director of Dartmouth's Center for Genomic Medicine, and his colleagues at the Medical College of Wisconsin, the National Human Genome Research Institute, the University of Cincinnati and several other Universities.

Understanding the genetic risk factors for lung cancer

Genome: Unlocking Life's Code, at the Museum of Natural History, celebrates the 10th anniversary of the first genome sequence generated by the Human Genome Project (HGP). Amos contributed to the portion of the exhibit that uses an interactive display to show how genetics, environment, and random chance play into risk factors for specific diseases.

Amos' research helped shape the section on lung cancer risk in "Your Genome, Your Health," which uses an interactive display to show how genetics, environment, and random chance play into risk factors for specific diseases. The display gives information about a fictional person who had genetic testing because family health histories predicted a high risk for lung cancer. Several choices are offered:

  • the initial choice is whether a genetic risk factor for lung cancer was identified in the testing
  • a sliding arrow identifies a light, moderate, or heavy smoker
  • a spinning wheel brings in the "random chance" factor.

While in real life we can't control our family history, genes, or random chance, we do make behavior choices (like smoking). Amos hopes that his research will help people with specific gene mutations make the best choices they can.

Genetic mutations can help identify lung cancer risk

"Certain rare genetic patterns predispose people to lung cancer—if these people smoke it is very damaging for them," Amos said, stressing that anyone who smokes increases their risk for the disease. "For people with this genetic makeup, smoking is especially harmful as even light smoking for these individuals greatly increases their lung cancer risk."

Genetic risk factors influencing lung cancer could shape personalized treatment options

Another genetic region increases your lung cancer risk and affects smoking behavior. This research has the potential to identify new targets for medications or to develop personalized smoking-cessation programs—for example nicotine replacement therapy works well for those with this genetic configuration.

"People shouldn't smoke, but if you do start to smoke, your ability to quit is determined by many factors, including genetic factors," Amos said. "It isn't always willpower—you may need help from a doctor. Seek support."

History of genetic mutation

When the Human Genome Project (HGP) was launched in 1990, one goal was to better understand genetic contributions to health and disease. Today, gene sequencing has become quicker and more efficient, allowing scientists to identify genetic mutations associated with specific diseases like lung cancer. This research is uncovering new ways to look at disease prevention and treatment, and opens up the possibility of personalizing medical care based on individual genetic profiles.

Threat of lung cancer

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in both men and women. It is the second most common cancer in the United States (after skin cancer), and more people die from lung cancer than from any other type of cancer. [1] Most people know that smoking increases the chances of getting lung cancer. And the more you smoke the greater the risk: the best way to prevent lung cancer is not to smoke.

Along with tobacco use, race and family history are also predictors of lung cancer risk. According to the National Cancer Institute, the number of new cases and deaths from lung cancer is highest in African American men, and Amos has been involved in several studies that identify people whose genetic makeup not only increases their susceptibility to lung cancer (even for light smokers) but can also influence how much they smoke, the extent of their nicotine dependence, and their ability to quit.

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[1] National Cancer Institute

June 03, 2013