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If smoky lungs could talk: A tale of cancer

Image of cells that were obtained by airway brushing.
Image courtesy of Avrum Spira

The lungs in your body have special ways of letting you know when they aren't healthy; especially if you smoke cigarettes. Recently, researchers have found that telltale chemical reactions in the lungs of current or former smokers can help identify those at highest risk for developing lung cancer.

But remarkably, these chemical reactions can be reversed before cancer starts, and might be the first effective way to prevent lung cancer among high-risk smokers. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related death among men and women in the United States and the world.

Magnified view of single airway cells obtained by brushing.
Image courtesy of Avrum Spira

In the experiment, Adam Gustafson of Boston University Medical Center and colleagues measured the genes that control these chemical reactions in cells that line major lung airways in smokers with and without lung cancer.

They found that genes belonging to one set of chemical reactions were activated to higher levels in the airways of smokers who had lung cancer in their airways, compared with smokers who did not develop lung cancer.

But, treating the smokers with a potential lung cancer drug that works by stopping the chemical reactions from occurring decreased the level of these genes and reduced caner in the lungs.

In the future, checking the levels of genes in cells also exposed to cigarette smoke--such as those that line the nose and mouth—might be a new way to screen people for early lung cancer.

This research appears in the 7 April issue of the journal Science Translational Medicine.