Smoking addiction and lung health linked to genetics, say British scientists

© Jonathan Alcorn
Reasons why some lifelong smokers manage to maintain heathy lungs can be traced back to genetics, new scientific research indicates.

A team of British scientist funded by the Medical Research Council say that their research will help develop better treatments for lung diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). 

As well as identifying genes which keep lungs healthy, the team discovered that genetic differences affect whether or not a person will become addicted to cigarettes which could lead to better support for those trying to quit.

The results showed that people with certain DNA types are more likely to develop COPD, explaining why some people developed lung problems despite not smoking and leading healthy lifestyles.

Led by Professors Ian Hall at the University of Nottingham and Martin Tobin at the University of Leicester, the team warned the findings did not mean people should continue their smoking habits.

“Smoking is the biggest lifestyle risk factor for COPD. Many, but not all, smokers develop the disease. Genetics play a big part, as they do in smoking behavior,” Tobin said.

“Our research helps to tell us why, paving the way for improved prevention and treatment. Stopping smoking is the best way to prevent smoking-related diseases such as COPD, cancers and heart disease.”

The team found there are five different sections of DNA which are related to heavy smokers and affect the brain’s response to nicotine.

“The drugs we use to prevent or treat diseases target the proteins in our bodies, and our genes influence the production of proteins. Understanding how the genes are involved in disease or in addiction to tobacco can help us design and develop better and more targeted treatments that are likely to be more effective and have fewer side effects,” Hall said.

The team selected 50,000 medical profiles from the 500,000 which are part of the UK Biobank. They selected participants based on lung health and whether or not they smoked.

They then compared the factors with the 28 million genetic variants present in each participant’s data and discovered sections of DNA which had never previously been associated with lung health.

The results were published in the Lancet study, which said the results shed new light on lung problems.

“By sampling from the extremes of the lung function distribution in UK Biobank, we identified novel genetic causes of lung function and smoking behavior.

“These results provide new insight into the specific mechanisms underlying airflow obstruction, COPD, and tobacco addiction, and show substantial shared genetic architecture underlying airflow obstruction across individuals, irrespective of smoking behavior and other airway disease.”