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People Metabolize Smoke Differently, Study Shows

Dr. Peter Shields   Dr. Peter Shields, senior author of the study on how cigarette smoke produces different "metabolites" in individual smokers, says a person's genetic profile and other factors affect production of the active biological compounds.

July 1, 2011 – Why some smokers are susceptible to disease while others don’t develop problems is the subject of a study by researchers at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, part of the Georgetown University Medical Center.

Smoke from cigarettes can affect nearly every organ in the body by promoting cell damage and causing inflammation, but no one has understood which smoker is or is not at risk.

The Georgetown Lombardi researchers demonstrated, at the American Association for Cancer Research 2011 meeting, how cigarette smoke produces different “metabolites” or active biological compounds, in individual smokers, compared to non-smokers.

Pilot Study

A metabolite is produced when anything taken into the body – such as food, tobacco smoke, alcohol, or medicine – is metabolized, or broken down into chemicals that produce a biological function via metabolic pathways.

In their pilot study, funded by the American Lung Association, the researchers analyzed hundreds of metabolites found in the blood and urine of nine smokers and 10 non-smokers.

The researchers narrowed their focus to the top 50 metabolites in smokers and non-smokers, which differed by group.

Genetic Profile

In the smokers group, the levels of nicotine-related metabolites varied. In addition, overall metabolomic profiles varied between males and females.

“This gives us an idea of how people produce metabolites differently when smoking cigarettes, which is based on their particular genetic profile and other biological and environmental factors,” says the study’s lead investigator, Ping-Ching Hsu, a doctoral student who works with oncology researcher Dr. Peter Shields.

Shields, the senior author of the study, specializes in tobacco carcinogenesis.  He occasionally serves as an expert witness against cigarette manufacturers in tobacco-related litigation.

Finding Biomarkers

The ultimate goal of the study, which is part of an extensive research project, is to find biomarkers in smokers that predict the development of disease in smokers, Hsu says.

The research also will help in the development of blood tests allowing researchers to assess the harmfulness of one tobacco product compared to another.

Comparatively, cigarette manufacturers have only been required to use machines that “smoked” cigarettes to derive the chemical content of potential carcinogens.

“Metabolomics provides a broad picture of what is happening in the body of smokers,” Hsu says.

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