Let’s make tobacco good for people

smoking by SuperFantastic
Cancer, melanoma genomes: A story we missed
[Via Knight Science Journalism Tracker]

I missed an important story last week, and so did most of the English-language news media on both sides of the Atlantic.

According to a story by Catharine Paddock for Medical News Today, researchers in England have sequenced the genomes of melanoma and small-cell lung cancer.

Thanks to Victor McElheny, former director of the Knight Fellowhips at MIT, for calling my attention to the story, which was based on research published in Nature last week.

“Both papers came largely from the Sanger Institute outside Cambridge, and got big play in London, little so far over here,” Vic wrote in an email. I’d challenge him on that a bit–I didn’t find a whole lot of play in England, either, although he’s right, it got more attention there than here.

This seems to be a very important development in cancer research, and it should have been front-page news. If you don’t agree, consider one interesting implication of the lung-cancer genome. According to Paddock’s story, the researchers found 23,000 mutation in the lung cancer cells. That works out to about one mutation per pack of cigarettes.


While the idea that smoking is bad really breaks no new frontiers, having a direct insight into the mutations that can be caused in the lung by smoking is really interesting. This gives us a much better idea of just what happens to produce lung cancer. It is astounding just how many mutations smoking produces.

Yep, we have a legal business that can supply a product to a consumer that appears to cause one mutation every twenty times it is used. Those mutations are random in different lung cells but it may only take a relative handful fo create an immortal cell that becomes a killer.

What other product do we allow that has as high a mutation rate? Why in the world is tobacco allowed for sale at all? I’d feel better if someone developed tobacco for use in biofuels? Then everyone in the business could stay happy but no more people would be killed. It would not displace any food crops and provide farmers with good revenue.

Tobacco plant seeds seem to be an interesting possibility. One report states that “compared with other biofuel crops, tobacco is cheaper to grow and produces bigger yields, according to Fogher. For every hectare (2.5 acres) on which it is grown, two tonnes of oil can be extracted from its seeds, about twice as much as rape or soy.”

It looks like the rest of the plant may have some uses in biofuel generation.

[Listening to: He Walked All The Way Home from the album “Midnight Storm” by Blue Highway]

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