Air pollution can lead to lung cancer. The connection suggests new ways to stop cancer in its tracks.
Forget taking a deep breath. Around the world, 99 percent of people breathe air polluted to unsafe levels, according to data from the World Health Organization. Activities such as burning fossil fuels release greenhouse gases that contribute to air pollution, which could lead to heart disease, stroke, asthma, emphysema, and some types of cancer.
“The burden of disease attributable to air pollution is now estimated to be on a par with other major global health risks such as unhealthy diet and tobacco smoking, and air pollution is now recognized as the single biggest environmental threat to human health,” wrote the authors of a 2021 WHO report.
The majority of lung cancer is attributed to smoking. But as pollution levels have increased, and anti-smoking campaigns have discouraged smoking, the proportion of lung cancers diagnosed in non-smokers has grown. The CDC estimates that 10 to 20 percent of lung cancers in the U.S. currently occur in non-smokers.
The mechanism between air pollution and the development of lung cancer has been unclear, but researchers at London’s Francis Crick Institute recently made an important breakthrough in understanding the connection. Lead investigator Charles Swanton presented this research last month at a conference in Paris.
Pollution awakens mutations
The Crick Institute scientists were able to identify a new link between common air pollutants and non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). They focused on pollutants called particulate matter, or PM, that are 2.5 microns wide, narrower than human cells.
Most cancer diagnosed in non-smoking people is NSCLC, but this type of cancer hasn’t received the same research attention as more common lung cancers found in smokers, according to Clare Weeden, a cancer researcher at the Crick Institute and a co-author of the study.
“This is a really underserved and under-researched population that we really need to tackle, as well as lung cancers that occur in smokers,” she says. “Lung cancer is the number one cancer killer worldwide.”
In the past, some researchers believed air pollution caused mutations that led to cancer. Others believed these mutations could remain dormant without any detriment to health until pollutants or other stressors triggered them to become cancerous. Reviving the latter hypothesis that carcinogens may activate pre-existing mutations, instead of directly causing them, the Crick researchers analyzed samples from 463,679 people in the UK and parts of Asia, noting mutations and comparing changes in gene expression in mice and human cells.
“The mutation can exist in a nascent clone without causing cancer,” says Emilia Lim, a bioinformatics expert and a co-first author of the Crick study. “It is the carcinogen that promotes a conducive environment for this one little clone to grow and expand into cancer. Through our work, we were able to revive excitement for this hypothesis and bring it to light.”
The study explains a confusing pattern of lung cancer developing, particularly in women, despite a lack of environmental risk factors like smoking, secondhand smoke, or radon exposure. The culprit in these cases may have been too much PM 2.5 exposure.
Other researchers had previously identified a link between mutations in certain genes that control epidermal growth factor receptors, or EGFR mutations, and the development of NSCLC. In a 2019 study of 250 people with this type of cancer, about 32 percent had the mutation. Women are more likely to have EGFR mutations than men.
Not everyone who has the EGFR mutation will develop lung cancer. Respirologist Stephen Lam studies lung cancer at the BC Cancer Research Centre in Vancouver, Canada, but was not involved in the Crick Institute research. He says the study explains a confusing pattern of lung cancer developing, particularly in women, despite a lack of environmental risk factors like smoking, secondhand smoke, or radon exposure. The culprit in these cases may have been too much PM 2.5 exposure.
More exposure leads to inflammation and lesions
The Crick researchers found that an excess of PM 2.5 in the air sparked an inflammatory process in cells within the lung. This inflammation set the stage for NSCLC to develop in people and mice with existing EGFR mutations.
The researchers also exposed mice without EGFR mutations to PM 2.5 pollution—an experiment that couldn’t be ethically conducted in humans—to link pollution exposure to NSCLC. The mice experiments also showed that NSCLC is dose-dependent; higher levels of exposure were associated with higher number of cancerous lesions forming.
Ultimately, the study “fundamentally changed how we view lung cancer in people who have never smoked,” said Swanton in a Crick Institute press release. “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 tumors.”
Preventing cancer before it begins
Targeted therapies already exist for people with EGFR mutations who’ve developed NSCLC, but they have many side effects, according to Weeden. Researchers hope that making more definitive links between pollutants and cancer could help prevent people with EGFR or other mutations from developing lung cancer in the first place.
Along those lines, as an additional component of their study presented last month, the Crick researchers were able to prevent cancer in mice that had the EGFR mutations by blocking inflammation. They used an antibody to inhibit a protein called interleukin 1 beta, which plays a key role in inflammation. Scientists could eventually use such antibodies or other therapies to make a drug treatment that people can take to stop cancer in its tracks, even if they live in highly polluted areas.
Such potential could reach beyond lung cancer; in the past, Crick and other researchers have also found associations between exposure to air pollution and mesothelioma, as well as cancers of the small intestine, lip, mouth, and throat. These links could be meaningful to a growing number of people as climate change intensifies, and with increases in air pollution from fossil fuel combustion and natural disasters like forest fires.
Plus, air pollution is just one external condition that can flip the switch of these inflammatory pathways. Identifying a link between pollution and cancer “has wide ramifications for many other environmental factors that may [play] similar roles,” Weedon says. She hopes that the Crick study and future research in this area will offer some hope for non-smokers frustrated by cancer diagnoses.
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Research on a "smart" bandage for wounds
- A breakthrough in fighting inflammation
- The pros and cons of a new drug for Alzheimer's
- Benefits of the Mediterranean diet - with a twist
- How to recycle a plastic that was un-recyclable
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are surging across the U.S. to 2.5 million cases in 2021 according to preliminary data from the CDC. A new prevention and treatment strategy now in clinical trials may provide a way to get a handle on them.
It's easy to overlook the soaring rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis because most of those infections have few or no symptoms and can be identified only through testing. But left untreated, they can lead to serious damage to nerves and tissue, resulting in infertility, blindness, and dementia. Infants developing in utero are particularly vulnerable.
Covid-19 played havoc with regular medical treatment and preventive care for many health problems, including STIs. After formal lockdowns ended, many people gradually became more socially engaged, with increases in sexual activity, and may have prioritized these activities over getting back in touch with their doctors.
A second blow to controlling STIs is that family planning clinics are closing left and right because of the Dobbs decision and legislation in many states that curtailed access to an abortion. Discussion has focused on abortion, but those same clinics also play a vital role in the diagnosis and treatment of STIs.
Routine public health is the neglected stepchild of medicine. It is called upon in times of crisis but as that crisis resolves, funding dries up. Labs have atrophied and personnel have been redirected to Covid, “so access to routine screening for STIs has been decimated,” says Jennifer Mahn, director of sexual and clinical health with the National Coalition of STD Directors.
A preview of what we likely are facing comes from Iowa. In 2017, the state legislature restricted funding to family health clinics in four counties, which closed their doors. A year later the statewide rate of gonorrhea skyrocketed from 83 to 153.7 cases per 100,000 people. “Iowa counties with clinic closures had a significantly larger increase,” according to a study published in JAMA. That scenario likely is playing out in countless other regions where access to sexual health care is shrinking; it will be many months before we have the data to know for sure.
A decades-old antibiotic finds a new purpose
Using drugs to protect against HIV, either as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), has proven to be quite successful. Researchers wondered if the same approach might be applied to other STIs. They focused on doxycycline, or doxy for short. One of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S., it’s a member of the tetracycline family that has been on the market since 1967. It is so safe that it’s used to treat acne.
Two small studies using doxy suggested that it could work to prevent STIs. A handful of clinical trials by different researchers and funding sources set out to generate the additional evidence needed to prove their hypothesis and change the standard of care.
Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted, “These are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use.
The first with results is the DoxyPEP study, conducted at two sexual health clinics in San Francisco and Seattle. It drew from a mix of transgender women and men who have sex with men, who had at least one diagnosed STI over the last year. The researchers divided the participants into two groups: one with people who were already HIV-positive and engaged in care, while the other group consisted of people who were on PrEP to prevent infection with HIV. For the active part of the study, a subset of the participants received doxy, and the rest of the participants did not.
The researchers intentionally chose to do the study in a population at the highest risk of having STIs, who were very health oriented, and “who were getting screened every three months or so as part of their PrEP program or their HIV care program,” says Connie Celum, a senior researcher at the University of Washington on the study.
Each member of the active group was given a supply of doxy and asked to take two pills within 72 hours of having sex where a condom was not used. The study was supposed to run for two years but, in May, it stopped halfway through, when a safety monitoring board looked at the data and recommended that it would be unethical to continue depriving the control group of the drug’s benefits.
Celum presented these preliminary results from the DoxyPEP study in July at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. “We saw about a 56 percent reduction in gonorrhea, about 80 percent reduction in chlamydia and syphilis, so very significant reductions, and this is on a per quarter basis,” she told a later webinar.
In Kenya, another study is following a group of cisgender women who are taking the same two-pill regimen to prevent HIV, and the data from this research should become available in 2023. Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted that “these are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use, another effective prevention tool.
Antibiotic resistance is a potentially big concern. About 25 percent of gonorrhea strains circulating in the U.S. are resistant to the tetracycline class of drugs, including doxy; rates are higher elsewhere. But resistance often is a matter of degree and can be overcome with a larger or longer dose of the drug, or perhaps with a switch to another drug or a two-drug combination.
Research has shown that an established bacterial infection is more difficult to treat because it is part of a biofilm, which can leave only a small portion or perhaps none of the cell surface exposed to a drug. But a new infection, even one where the bacteria is resistant to a drug, might still be vulnerable to that drug if it's used before the bacterial biofilm can be established. Preliminary data suggests that may be the case with doxyPEP and drug resistant gonorrhea; some but not all new drug resistant infections might be thwarted if they’re treated early enough.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community.
Resistance does not seem to be an issue yet for chlamydia and syphilis even though doxy has been a recommended treatment for decades, but a remaining question is whether broader use of doxy will directly worsen antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea, or promote it in other STIs. And how will it affect the gut microbiome?
In addition, Celum notes that we need to understand whether doxy will generate mutations in other bacteria that might contribute to drug resistance for gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. The studies underway aim to provide data to answer these questions.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community. That might affect doctors' willingness to prescribe the drug.
Turning research into action
The CDC makes policy recommendations for prevention services such as taking doxy, requiring some and leaving others optional. Celum says the CDC will be reviewing information from her trial at a meeting in December, but probably will wait until that study is published before making recommendations, likely in 2023. The San Francisco Department of Public Health issued its own guidance on October 20th and anecdotally, some doctors around the country are beginning to issue prescriptions for doxy to select patients.
About half of new STIs occur in young people ages 15 to 24, a group that is least likely to regularly see a doctor. And sexual health remains a great taboo for many people who don't want such information on their health record for prying parents, employers or neighbors to find out.
“People will go out of their way and travel extensive distances just to avoid that,” says Mahn, the National Coalition director. “People identify locations where they feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they don't feel judged,” Mahn explains, such as community and family planning clinics. They understand those issues and have fees that vary depending on a person’s ability to pay.
Given that these clinics already are understaffed and underfunded, they will be hard pressed to expand services covering the labor intensive testing and monitoring of a doxyPEP regimen. Sexual health clinics don't even have a separate line item in the federal budget for health. That is something the National Association of STI Directors is pushing for in D.C.
DoxyPEP isn't a panacea, and it isn't for everyone. “We really want to try to reach that population who is most likely going to have an STI in the next year,” says Celum, “Because that's where you are going to have the biggest impact.”