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Hand with a cigarette in front of the x ray image of human abdomen

Researchers from the University of Hawaiʻi Cancer Center collaborated on a study that sheds light on the complex links between smoking habits, epigenetics (the factors beyond DNA sequence that impact gene activity), and the risk of smoking-related diseases, such as lung cancer. The study was published in the American Journal of Human Genetics.

Related UH News story: $2.8M to study smoking-related lung cancer disparities

In Hawaiʻi, lung cancer is the second most prevalent cancer and the leading cause of cancer-related death in both men and women. It is crucial to grasp the effects of tobacco exposure on health, particularly considering its diverse impacts on different demographic segments.

“This study is of particular importance as it may help to improve our understanding of mechanisms that contribute to the observed racial and ethnic differences in risk of smoking-related diseases,” said UH Cancer Center researcher Lani Park, senior author of the paper.

Disparities among groups

Scientists found that many epigenetic signatures due to changes in gene activity caused by nicotine within the body are consistent across race and ethnicity. However, there were two sites where the methylation differed across race and ethnicity. One site was only associated with African Americans, while the other had a stronger association with Latinos.

These findings represent a significant step in understanding the molecular structure of smoking-related diseases and underscore the importance of tailored interventions to address health disparities across diverse populations.

The study investigated epigenetic signatures associated with the amount a person smokes in six distinct racial and ethnic groups: African Americans, Chinese, Japanese, Latinos, Native Hawaiians and whites. Research has shown that smoking is associated with a change in how DNA works, as small chemical tags are added to it, which affects different parts of the genome.

The study enlisted over 2,700 participants from three extensive prospective cohort studies: the Multiethnic Cohort Study based at the UH Cancer Center with 1,994 participants; the Singapore Chinese Health Study, with 394 participants; and the Southern Community Cohort Study, involving 340 participants.

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