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  • Writer's pictureKirk Hartley

Fingerprinting a History of Cigarette Smoking Through Epigenetic Changes

For asbestos litigation defendants, a recurrent fear is facing waves of lung cancer claims that we would today say are completely or mainly caused by cigarette smoking. Accordingly, most lung cancer claimants face interrogatories and deposition questioning about whether, how much and how long they smoked.

Over time, science may also answer the questions, as suggested by research work discussed this week at one of the UK’s pre-eminent conferences the NCRI Cancer Conference. How? "Researchers … have identified a number of sites in the DNA of blood that have been chemically tagged as a result of smoking." That is, the smoking produced epigenetic changes."

What does all this mean? Down the road, for litigators and their clients, it may mean an objective measure for determining the actual smoking history of a person. For the person, it may mean a way to measure the risk of cancer arising from current or past smoking. Here is the abstract for the paper, and the complete press release is here. Key quotes are set out below:

"Dr James Flanagan, Breast Cancer Campaign scientific fellow at Imperial College London and co-author of the research, said: “This research may help to build a test that will be able to look at a person’s epigenetic information at the molecular level and measure in great detail the added risk of cancer from exposures such as smoking.

“Previous research into smoking has often asked people to fill out questionnaires, which have their obvious drawbacks and inaccuracies. Using this approach, we will be able to read the fingerprint on a person’s DNA to tell us a story of how their habit may have changed over the course of their life.”(emphasis added)

Professor Paolo Vineis, chair in environmental epidemiology at Imperial College London’s School of Public Health and head of the HuGeF laboratory in Italy, said: “This research will help us to build a molecular profile of cancer risk, where we can screen people and quantify the exposure they’ve had to a number of risk factors over their lifetime, just by examining a blood sample.

“We hope that smoking is just the start – further work will look into other factors like alcohol and start to measure the risk an individual has built up over a lifetime of exposure to these contributors to cancer.

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