Through the Smokescreen

For many years I was lucky enough to teach in a cancer biology course for third year natural science and medical students. Quite a few of those guys would already be eyeing up research careers and, within just a few months, some might be working on the very topics that came up in lectures. Nothing went down better, therefore, than talking about a nifty new method that had given easy-to-grasp results clearly of direct relevance to cancer.

Three cheers then for Mikhail Denissenko and friends who in 1996 published the first absolutely unequivocal evidence that a chemical in cigarette smoke could directly damage a bit of DNA that provides a major protection against cancer. The compound bound directly to several guanines in the DNA sequence that encodes P53 – the protein often called ‘the guardian of the genome’ – causing mutations. A pity poor old Fritz Lickint wasn’t around for a celebratory drink – it was he, back in the 1930s, that first spotted the link between smoking and lung cancer.

This was absolutely brilliant for showing how proteins switched on genes – and how that switch could be perturbed by mutations – because, just a couple of years earlier, Yunje Cho’s group at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York had made crystals of P53 stuck to DNA and used X-rays to reveal the structure. This showed that six sites (amino acids) in the centre of the P53 protein poked like fingers into the groove of double-stranded DNA.

x-ray-picCentral core of P53 (grey ribbon) binding to the groove in double-stranded DNA (blue). The six amino acids (residues) most commonly mutated in p53 are shown in yellow (from Cho et al., 1994).

So that was how P53 ‘talked’ to DNA to control the expression of specific genes. What could be better then, in a talk on how DNA damage can lead to cancer, than the story of a specific chemical doing nasty things to a gene that encodes perhaps the most revered of anti-cancer proteins?

The only thing baffling the students must have been the tobacco companies insisting, as they continued to do for years, that smoking was good for you.

And twenty-something years on …?

Well, it’s taken a couple of revolutions (scientific, of course!) but in that time we’ve advanced to being able to sequence genomes at a fantastic speed for next to nothing in terms of cost. In that period too more and more data have accumulated showing the pervasive influence of the weed. In particular that not only does it cause cancer in tissues directly exposed to cigarette smoke (lung, oesophagus, larynx, mouth and throat) but it also promotes cancers in places that never see inhaled smoke: kidney, bladder, liver, pancreas, stomach, cervix, colon, rectum and white blood cells (acute myeloid leukemia). However, up until now we’ve had very little idea of what, if anything, these effects have in common in terms of molecular damage.

Applying the power of modern sequencing, Ludmil Alexandrov of the Los Alamos National Lab, along with the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute’s Michael Stratton and their colleagues have pieced together whole-genome sequences and exome sequences (those are just the DNA that encode proteins – about 1% of the total) of over 5,000 tumours. These covered 17 smoking-associated forms of cancer and permitted comparison of tobacco smokers with never-smokers.

Let’s hear it for consistent science!

The most obvious question then is do the latest results confirm the efforts of Denissenko & Co., now some 20 years old? The latest work found that smoking could increase the mutation load in the form of multiple, distinct ‘mutational signatures’, each contributing to different extents in different cancers. And indeed in lung and larynx tumours they found the guanine-to-thymine base-pair change that Denissenko et al had observed as the result of a specific chemical attaching to DNA.

For lung cancer they concluded that, all told, about 150 mutations accumulate in a given lung cell as a result of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for a year.

Turning to tissues that are not directly exposed to smoke, things are a bit less clear. In liver and kidney cancers smokers have a bigger load of mutations than non-smokers (as in the lung). However, and somewhat surprisingly, in other smoking-associated cancer types there were no clear differences. And even odder, there was no difference in the methylation of DNA between smokers and non-smokers – that’s the chemical tags that can be added to DNA to tune the process of transforming the genetic code into proteins. Which was strange because we know that such ‘epigenetic’ changes can occur in response to external factors, e.g., diet.

What’s going on?

Not clear beyond the clear fact that tissues directly exposed to smoke accumulate cancer-driving mutations – and the longer the exposure the bigger the burden. For tissues that don’t see smoke its effect must be indirect. A possible way for this to happen would be for smoke to cause mild inflammation that in turn causes chemical signals to be released into the circulation that in turn affect how efficiently cells repair damage to their DNA.


Sir Walt showing off on his return                         to England

Whose fault it is anyway?

So tobacco-promoted cancers still retain some of their molecular mystery as well as presenting an appalling and globally growing problem. These days a popular pastime is to find someone else to blame for anything and everything – and in the case of smoking we all know who the front-runner is. But although Sir Walter Raleigh brought tobacco to Europe (in 1578), it had clearly been in use by American natives long before he turned up and, going in the opposite direction (à la Marco Polo), the Chinese had been at it since at least the early 1500s. To its credit, China had an anti-smoking movement by 1639, during the Ming Dynasty. One of their Emperors decreed that tobacco addicts be executed and the Qing Emperor Kangxi went a step further by beheading anyone who even possessed tobacco.

And paying the price

And paying the price

If you’re thinking maybe we should get a touch more Draconian in our anti-smoking measures, it’s worth pointing out that the Chinese model hasn’t worked out too well so far. China’s currently heading for three million cancer deaths annually. About 400,000 of these are from lung cancer and the smoking trends mean this figure will be 700,000 annual deaths by 2020. The global cancer map is a great way to keep up with the stats of both lung cancer and the rest – though it’s not for those of a nervous disposition!


Denissenko, M.F. et al. ( (1996). Preferential Formation of Benzo[a]pyrene Adducts at Lung Cancer Mutational Hotspots in P53.Science 274, 430–432.

Cho, Y. et al. (1994). Crystal Structure of a p53 Tumor Suppressor-DNA Complex: Understanding Tumorigenic Mutations. Science, 265, 346-355.

Alexandrov, L.D. et al. (2016). Mutational signatures associated with tobacco smoking in human cancer. Science 354, 618-622.