Data from a breakthrough study in understanding how air pollution can lead to lung cancer, presented at the European Society of Medical Oncology congress on Sept 9–13, 2022, promise to revolutionise the field of oncology and approaches to public health.
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Although smoking remains the biggest risk factor for lung cancer worldwide, an estimated 6000 people who have never smoked die from lung cancer every year in the UK, and around one in every ten cases of the disease is attributed not to smoking, but to Air Pollution.
“Our study has fundamentally changed how we view lung cancer in people who have never smoked”, observed lead investigator Charles Swanton (The Francis Crick Institute, London, UK). “Cells with cancer-causing mutations accumulate naturally as we age, but they are normally inactive. We’ve demonstrated that air pollution wakes these cells up in the lungs, encouraging them to grow and potentially form tumours.”
Lung cancer is also not the only cancer implicated in these findings. “According to our analysis, increasing air pollution levels increases the risk of lung cancer, mesothelioma, and cancers of the mouth and throat”, commented co-first author, Emilia Lim (The Francis Crick Institute). “This finding suggests a broader role for cancers caused by inflammation, triggered by a carcinogen like air pollution.”
“The mechanism we’ve identified could ultimately help us to find better ways to prevent and treat lung cancer in never-smokers”, explained Swanton. “If we can stop cells from growing in response to air pollution, we can reduce the risk of lung cancer.”… However, the most urgent preventive measure demanded by these study findings is to reduce Air Pollution on a global scale in order to safeguard public health.
The discovery is of global impact because 99% of the world’s population currently lives in areas that exceed WHO’s annual limits for PM2·5. In 2019 alone, approximately 300 000 lung cancer deaths in Europe were attributed to PM2·5 exposure.