Commentary: A scary new link between air pollution and lung cancer

Commentary: A scary new link between air pollution and lung cancer


But researchers at the Francis Crick Institute found something different going on in lung cancer caused by pollution. Fine particles in dirty air, known as PM2.5, aren’t directly tinkering with our DNA. Instead, they are setting off a chain reaction that causes tumours to grow. 

It turns out that as we age, our cells accumulate mutations. The researchers studied biopsies taken from healthy lungs and found that more than half of those tissue samples had some cells that harboured two specific cancer-driving mutations.

But those cells aren’t causing cancer. For that, they need a trigger.

“These are normal cells,” Charles Swanton, who led the research, said in a video the conference produced about his study. At least, until air pollution comes along.

When fine particular matter in pollution is inhaled, a chemical called interleukin-1 beta sweeps in to do damage control. That inflammatory response can also push the small number of cells harbouring mutations to proliferate. Eventually, a tumour forms.


The finding contributes to a growing body of evidence that scientists’ assumptions about how environmental factors lead to cancer might be wrong.

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