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Doubling the risk of lung cancer?

June 2014: By Nicky Whiting

BRCA2 gene carriers who smoke could be twice as likely to contract lung cancer

Breast cancer drugs designed to treat ovarian and breast cancer caused by BRCA gene mutations may prove effective against lung cancer.

A recent study of 27,000 people has suggested the chance of developing lung cancer is “enormously” increased among those who carry a BRCA2 (breast cancer) gene mutation AND smoke.

The study, published in the journal Nature Genetics, compared the DNA of 11,348 Europeans with lung cancer with 15,861 people who were free of the disease. Scientists found a BRCA-2 defect known as c.9976T increased the risk of developing lung cancer by about 1.8 times, on top of the risks from smoking.

LungHealth UK, who offer early cancer detection screening via their ‘LungCheck’ service today commented ‘With no national NHS screening programme in place, awareness and research are vital to combat this killer disease’. Earlier this week, CancerResearch UK suggested that many drugs targeted at breast cancer may have a positive effect in the treatment of some lung cancers.

Whilst the media have made much of the links between variants of BRCA genes and breast cancer (owing mainly to the sensational story of Angelina Jolie and her decision to have a double mastectomy), less has been made of the link between the genes and other cancers (ovarian and prostate).

The study compared the genetic codes of people with and without lung cancer.

Whilst smokers have 40 times the chance of developing lung cancer, smokers with a BRCA2 mutation were nearly 80 times more likely. Mutations to the BRCA genes stop DNA from repairing itself effectively.

The discovery could mean treatments that are being developed for breast cancer may also work in some cases of lung cancer. ‘PARP inhibitors’ are a family of drugs which have shown some success in treating people with BRCA mutations who have developed breast or ovarian cancers. It is not known as yet, whether these same drugs are likely to work on lung cancer, among those patients with a similar mutation.

Vicki Kiesel, Genetic Director of LungHealth UK explains ‘Mutations in BRCA 2 are well known to cause an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer. However, this study is the first to substantially link lung cancer risk too, especially for smokers. The study, is also clear that the most important way to avoid lung cancer is not to smoke’.

Cancer Research UK’s Chief Clinician Professor Peter Johnson this week reported "We've known for two decades that inherited mutations in BRCA2 made people more likely to develop breast and ovarian cancer, but these new findings show a greater risk of lung cancer too, especially for people who smoke,"

"But, with or without one of these genetic flaws, the single most effective way to reduce the risk of lung cancer is to be a non-smoker." Prof Johnson exclaims.

A spokesperson from LungHealth UK also acknowledges “Around 86% of lung cancer deaths in the UK are caused by tobacco smoking. It is estimated that in 2010, 60,000 cases of cancer in the UK were caused by tobacco smoking’.

Lung cancer kills more than a million people worldwide each year, and is by far the biggest cancer killer in the UK.

For more information

James Gallagher reports for the BBC on ‘raised risk’ among BRCA gene carriers and who smoke

More about BRCA mutations and the services provided by GenehealthUK can be found here

More about Lung Check, and the services provided by Lung Health UK can be found here

Medical News Today also reports on the BRCA2 gene mutation, and links to lung cancer.

‘Breast cancer gene now linked to lung cancer’ says The Independent: