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Genetic factors may predispose some nonsmokers to lung cancer

UT study looks at relatives of cancer patients.

By Cindy Tumiel


Sunday, May 28, 2006

Lung cancer is the most common and most lethal cancer, killing more than 163,000 Americans in 2005. But not all who suffer from the disease are smokers.

Fifteen percent of lung cancers occur in people who have never smoked.

Doctors blame the incidence on exposure to second-hand smoke, but they also suspect there are genetic factors that make these people more likely to have cancer.

Now a recent study from the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston adds more evidence to the theory that people can inherit a genetic susceptibility to cancer.

Epidemiologists looked at close relatives of 316 people who had never smoked but had lung cancer. They found a 25 percent increase in the risk of cancer — any form of cancer — among the parents, siblings and children of the lung cancer patients. These people also were more likely to have cancer at a younger age.

"This says individuals might be genetically predisposed to more than one type of cancer. That tells us that there is a common pathway for these cancers," said Olga Gorlova, an assistant professor of epidemiology who directed the study.

The findings were presented at the American Association for Cancer Research meeting in Washington last month.

The study looked at 2,465 parents, children or siblings of lung cancer patients who never smoked. Researchers compared them with a group of 2,442 people whose close relatives didn't have lung cancer and also never smoked. Relatives of the cancer patients had higher rates of melanoma, colorectal, head and neck, prostate, testicular and breast cancers.

These people were 44 percent more likely to develop any cancer before the age of 50, and six times more likely to have lung cancer before age 50. Scientists are hunting for the genes involved but are a long way from understanding what makes these people more at-risk, said Dr. Margaret Spitz, chairman of epidemiology at M.D. Anderson.

But people who do have a family history of lung cancer should quit smoking and limit exposure to second-hand smoke, the researchers said.

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