Stephen Hecht knows tobacco. He knows lung cancer. He’s spent his career studying the two.
With the help of a $10.7 million grant from the National Cancer Institute, the University of Minnesota Masonic Cancer Center professor and his team of eight national researchers are setting out to learn more about the link between them.
Having spent almost four decades studying cancer-causing substances in tobacco, Hecht and his team will spend the next five years determining why certain ethnic groups are more susceptible to developing lung cancer from smoking cigarettes.
Though it is the most preventable, lung cancer is responsible for more annual deaths in both men and women than any other type of cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. ACS estimated there were 160,000 lung cancer deaths in 2008.
Tobacco is responsible for 87 percent of lung cancer deaths, according to ACS estimates.
“What this new grant is proposing to do is to essentially use state-of-the-art genetic and chemical approaches to explain these differences,” Hecht said.
The team consists of five other researchers from the University of Minnesota, two from the University of Southern California, and one from the University of Hawaii.
The research will build on a study of 180,000 people from five ethnic groups led by USC professor Christopher Haiman, who will join Hecht’s team. The study concluded that African-Americans and native Hawaiians are twice as likely to develop lung cancer as Caucasians who smoke the same amount.
Only 8 percent of African-Americans in the study smoked more than 25 cigarettes per day, while 27 percent of whites smoked as much and were classified as heavy smokers.
The study also found the two susceptible groups were two and a half to five times more likely to develop the cancer as Japanese Americans and Latinos who smoke the same amount.
Hecht said the results of Haiman’s research, published in 2006, were a “huge lead” for his own five-year, five-project study.
The first project will decode the genome — or all the genetic material — of 5,000 individuals to look for pertinent differences in the genes involved with lung cancer among the five ethnic groups.
That project will also examine urine samples to determine if the different ethnic groups break down cancer-causing substances in tobacco differently.
Other projects in the study will look more closely at substances thought to be particularly harmful in causing cancer, and how they may harm the two most susceptible groups more.
Those substances cause cancer by binding to DNA and creating mutations, so another project will examine differences between the ethnic groups in how DNA repairs itself. Another project focuses on glucuronidation, a process that removes harmful substances from the body.
“Altogether, this will be by far the most comprehensive of its type ever attempted,” Hecht said. When completed, it should answer the questions of what differences exist between ethnicities that make certain groups more susceptible than others, he said.
Though the college-age population has grown up barraged by advertisements warning of the dangers of smoking, National Cancer Institute Program Director Alan Poland said this research is no less important.
“Despite all the advertisements, people are still smoking,” he said.
NCI spends about $5 billion annually in funding and supporting 65 cancer centers across the nation, Poland said.
Results from Hecht’s research could aid greatly in screening for lung cancer. Unlike other major cancers, there is no concrete screening test for lung cancer.
“If he can find people that have early detection markers or genetic susceptibility, we may be able to screen the population,” Poland said.