American Association for Cancer Research

Press Releases: 2008

Why Only Some Former Smokers Develop Lung Cancer


November 17, 2008

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Canadian researchers are trying to answer why some smokers develop lung cancer while others remain disease free, despite similar lifestyle changes.

Results were presented at the American Association for Cancer Research's Seventh Annual International Conference on Frontiers in Cancer Prevention Research.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more people die from lung cancer than any other cancer type. In fact, according to 2004 data, more people died from lung cancer than breast, prostate and colon cancers combined.

Smoking is the biggest risk factor for developing lung cancer, even after quitting for long periods of time. "More than 50 percent of newly diagnosed lung cancer patients are former smokers," said Emily A. Vucic, a graduate student at the British Columbia Cancer Research Centre, Vancouver, B.C. "Understanding why some former smokers develop lung cancer is clearly important to the development of early detection, prevention and treatment strategies."

The researchers studied how DNA methylation contributes to lung cancer development in former smokers. Methylation is an important event regulating gene expression during normal development. As we age and in cancer, proper patterns of DNA methylation become deregulated throwing off the tight control of gene activity that normally exists.

Using an endoscope, Vucic and colleagues collected bronchial epithelial cells, which are cells that line the lungs, from 16 former smokers. The participants quit smoking more than 10 years ago. Eight participants had surgical removal of non-small cell lung cancer; eight were disease free.

Their results showed differences in methylation levels in lung epithelial cells between former smokers with and without lung cancer.

"Alteration to DNA methylation might potentially explain why some former smokers sustain additional genetic damage resulting in lung cancer," Vucic said. "As methylation is a reversible DNA modification, this knowledge could prompt the development and application of chemopreventive agents and unique therapeutic strategies that target DNA methylation in these patients."

Exposure to cigarette smoke is a major culprit in disease development. "In addition to DNA sequence mutations, cigarette smoke also causes widespread errors in DNA marks, such as DNA methylation, used to regulate gene function and genome stability," Vucic said.

Cigarette smoke exposure has been shown to activate genes that promote cancer and deactivate genes that stop tumor growth, she said. "Studies examining tumors at all levels of DNA disruption will identify events involved in lung cancer development in former smokers."

The researchers are pursuing additional studies to confirm their initial results, Vucic said.


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The mission of the American Association for Cancer Research is to prevent and cure cancer. Founded in 1907, AACR is the world's oldest and largest professional organization dedicated to advancing cancer research. The membership includes more than 28,000 basic, translational and clinical researchers; health care professionals; and cancer survivors and advocates in the United States and 80 other countries. The AACR marshals the full spectrum of expertise from the cancer community to accelerate progress in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer through high-quality scientific and educational programs. It funds innovative, meritorious research grants. The AACR Annual Meeting attracts more than 17,000 participants who share the latest discoveries and developments in the field. Special conferences throughout the year present novel data across a wide variety of topics in cancer research, treatment and patient care. The AACR publishes five major peer-reviewed journals: Cancer Research; Clinical Cancer Research; Molecular Cancer Therapeutics; Molecular Cancer Research; and Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention. The AACR's most recent publication and its sixth major journal, Cancer Prevention Research, is dedicated exclusively to cancer prevention, from preclinical research to clinical trials. The AACR also publishes CR, a magazine for cancer survivors and their families, patient advocates, physicians and scientists. CR provides a forum for sharing essential, evidence-based information and perspectives on progress in cancer research, survivorship and advocacy.

Media Contact:
Jeremy Moore
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Jeremy.moore@aacr.org
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