So-Called 'Good' Genes Protect Some Smokers’ Lungs, Not Others

By May Wilkerson 09/28/15

Some people may have a genetic mutation that gives them a lower risk of getting COPD.

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Why can some people smoke their entire lives without getting lung disease, while others can develop the condition without ever lighting up?

A new study finds that “good” genes are responsible for protecting some smokers from lung disease, while others are not so lucky. Researchers at the United Kingdom’s University of Leicester examined incidence of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) among 50,000 people, all volunteers for the Biobank project.

They found that people with certain mutations in their DNA had a lower risk of developing COPD, a category of lung diseases including bronchitis and emphysema. These “good” genetic mutations appeared to help lung development and protect the lungs from disease.

Other subjects that did not have these DNA mutations seemed to be at a higher risk of developing COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, regardless of whether or not they smoked.

“Smoking is the biggest lifestyle risk factor for COPD. Many, but not all, smokers develop the disease. Genetics play a big part, as they do in smoking behavior,” said Professor Martin Tobin, one of the researchers involved in the study.

However, the researchers cautioned that refraining from smoking is a safer bet than gambling on good genes. Especially because these genes do not necessarily protect against other potential risks of smoking, like heart disease and cancers.

The findings, however, could help pave the way for better lung disease treatment. The results offer "fantastic new clues about how the body works that we really had little idea about before, and it's those things that are likely to lead to some really exciting breakthroughs for drug development,” said Professor Tobin.

Ian Jarrold, the head of research at the British Lung Foundation, said the findings could also provide insight for non-smokers to better protect their lung health. Factors other than smoking, like air pollution, can also put people at risk of COPD.

"Understanding genetic predisposition is essential in not only helping us develop new treatments for people with lung disease, but also in teaching otherwise healthy people how to better take care of their lungs," Jarrold said.

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.