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Scientists have discovered one mechanism by which tobacco works smoking causes cancer and makes it harder to treat by undermining the body’s protection against cancer, according to a new study.
The study, published in the journal Science Advances, links tobacco smoking to harmful changes in DNA, called ‘stop-gain mutations’, which tell the body to stop making certain proteins before they are fully formed.
The scientists at the Canada-based Ontario Institute for Cancer Research (OICR) found that these stop-gain mutations occurred mainly in genes known as “tumor suppressors,” which make proteins that normally inhibit the growth of abnormal cells would prevent.
“Our study showed that smoking is associated with changes in DNA that disrupt the formation of tumor suppressor genes,” said Nina Adler, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto.
“Without them, abnormal cells can continue to grow, unchecked by the cell’s defenses cancer can develop more easily,” she added.
The scientists used powerful computing tools to analyze DNA from more than 12,000 tumor samples from 18 different types of cancer.
Their analysis showed a strong link between stop-gain mutations in lung cancer and its telltale ‘footprint’ smoking leaves in DNA.
“Our study highlights how smoking tobacco actually deactivates critical proteins, the building blocks of our cells, and the impact this can have on our long-term health,” said Reimand, an OICR researcher and associate professor at the University of Toronto .
The study also identified other factors and processes responsible for creating large numbers of stop-gain mutations, known as ‘nonsense’ mutations.
Some, like the APOBEC enzyme family, which has been linked to stop-gain mutations in breast cancer and other cancers, occur naturally in the body.
Other factors, such as an unhealthy diet and alcohol consumption, likely have similar damaging effects on DNA, according to Reimand, but more research is needed to fully understand how this happens.
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