As smoking has decreased over the past few decades, so too has the lung cancer rate. But within these data lies a conundrum: As overall rates of lung cancer lessen, the rate among those who have never smoked appears to be rising. In 2016, nearly a quarter of women with lung cancer had smoked fewer than 100 cigarettes over their lifetimes (the upper limit for a “never-smoker”), and more than 15 percent of men with lung cancer also fell into this category. These patients usually develop non-small cell lung cancer, a deadly type of lung tumor. More work needs to be done to understand how to prevent lung cancer in people classified as never-smokers.
Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center lung cancer researcher Dr. Alice Berger recently received a grant from Prevent Cancer Foundation to help untangle how environmental exposures beyond cigarette smoke contribute to lung cancer.
“The overall goal of the project is to try provide insight into the role of environmental factors in lung cancer,” Berger said. “One of the exciting things is that we’re going to be able to observe the broad underlying mutational signatures that are reflective of possible environmental exposures and could contribute to lung cancer risk in people that have never smoked.”
The results will be a step toward understanding who among never-smokers may be most at risk for lung cancer and, once validated in further studies, point toward possible preventive and risk-reducing measures.
This prevention-focused study complements Berger’s first study of tumors from never-smokers, which focused on understanding how specific mutations may influence cancer treatment response. Both projects draw on samples and data from participants in the Women’s Health Initiative. Fred Hutch is the coordinating hub for this nationwide study.
“The WHI has carefully collected information about environmental and occupational exposures of the women in this study. That will allow us to correlate mutational signatures with the self-reported exposure information,” Berger said. “It’s very different than a lot of other clinical data sets in that way.”
Sabrina Richards, a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, has written about scientific research and the environment for The Scientist and OnEarth Magazine. She has a Ph.D. in immunology from the University of Washington, an M.A. in journalism and an advanced certificate from the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.