Francis Crick Institute researchers in London discovered that air pollution wakes up old, damaged cells rather than actually harming them.
These findings contradict the widely held belief that cancer develops from a healthy cell whose DNA is altered until it develops cancer. However, many substances, including air pollution, do not seem to cause DNA damage.
The new finding may clarify how other carcinogens cause cancer, and researchers believe it may now be possible to develop drugs that stop cancer from developing.
Professor Charles Swanton, the study's lead author and the chief clinician at Cancer Research UK, expressed that cancer-causing mutations naturally accumulate in cells as we age, but they are typically dormant. The study showed that air pollution awakens these cells in the lungs, causing them to
multiply and possibly develop tumours.
The mechanism discovered may eventually enable us to develop more effective strategies for treating and preventing lung cancer in non-smokers. Lung cancer risk can be decreased if we can block cells from expanding in response to air pollution.
Focusing on PM2.5, researchers investigated how air pollution causes cancer, particularly in non-smokers.
Interlukin-1-beta, a molecule that induces lung inflammation and stimulates cells to repair damage, is released into the body when people breathe in PM2.5.
But in the lungs of a typical 50-year-old, one in every 600,000 cells may be malignant. This is due to the fact that as we age, we produce more of these cells, which can turn malignant when a chemical activates them.
A medication that prevents the chemical was also found to be effective in preventing the development of cancer in mice exposed to air pollution.
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