One genetic mutation per 50 cigarettes, study finds

Credit: Chuck Grimmett Photo credit: Chuck Grimmett

By Maria Mellor

Many people like to throw around numbers when it comes to the harm behind smoking cigarettes: smoking a cigarette takes an hour off your life, smoking 40 a day makes you guaranteed to get lung cancer. All of these are unproven. For the first time research has given us a quantifiable correlation between the cause and effect of smoke inhalation.

Researchers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico found that on average one DNA mutation occurs per 50 cigarettes smoked. Tobacco does not just cause mutations in the lungs but also the larynx, pharynx, bladder and liver.

Dr Ludmil Alexandrov, first author of the paper, said: “Before now, we had a large body of epidemiological evidence linking smoking with cancer, but now we can actually observe and quantify the molecular changes in the DNA due to cigarette smoking.”

DNA mutations happen often within the body, hence why not everyone who gets cancer has smoked, however smoking drastically increases the chances of mutation. One mutation alone is unlikely to cause cancer, however multiple mutations over a period time can become cancerous.

This most recent study has shown that the average person who smokes a pack of 20 a day for a year generates 150 mutations per lung cell, 97 per larynx cell, 39 per pharynx cell, 18 per bladder cell and six per liver cell.

Alexandrov said: “Smoking is like playing Russian roulette: the more you play, the higher the chance the mutations will hit the right genes and you will develop cancer.

“However, there will always be people who smoke a lot but the mutations do not hit the right genes.”

The researchers looked at over 5,000 tumours, comparing those from smokers and those from non-smokers. In doing so they found that there was a clear difference: there were clear signs of DNA damage found only in the DNA of smokers.

The news of this study was quickly followed by the release of a study from the World Health Organisation that claimed that the use of e-cigarettes does not help people stop smoking.

Professor John Britton, director of the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies said: “It is perfectly reasonable to be concerned that young people might use e-cigarettes and become addicted. All those arguments apply to licensed nicotine products that anybody can walk into Tesco and buy.”

The team of scientists from the Los Alamos National Laboratory hope that their research will stop people from taking up smoking in the first place. Every cigarette has the potential to cause genetic mutations, proving that theory that social smoking is harmless is a myth.

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