EpiBio team will explore lung cancer in Asian American nonsmokers

Smoking has long dominated the narrative of lung cancer, and it does pose a major risk. Yet, up to a quarter of those diagnosed with lung cancer in the United States have never smoked. Some studies suggest that lung cancer among non-smokers is not just becoming more visible as smoking recedes but is actually on the rise.


Female lung cancer patients – particularly women of Asian descent – are more likely to be non-smokers. Never-smokers account for more than half of all Asian American women diagnosed with lung cancer. Among Chinese American women, up to 80 percent of lung cancer patients have never smoked.


So what is going on?


“Lung cancer is a major contributor to cancer-related deaths among Asian American women, but the vast majority do not smoke. We know very little about this health disparity because there has been no focused study of lung cancer among Asian American female never smokers,” explained Scarlett Gomez, PhD, professor of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at UCSF.


Gomez and Iona Cheng, PhD, also a professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, have just received a $3.35-million NIH grant through the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities of the National Institutes of Health to investigate what drives lung cancer in non-smoking Asian American women. They will recruit 600 matched pairs of never-smoking Asian American women, half with lung cancer and half without.


In collaboration with UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Moon Chen, PhD, MPH, the researchers hope to unravel the roles played by genetics, cultural factors such as exposure to cooking oil and environmental exposures women experience in the U.S. and, if relevant, in Asia. The researchers will also analyze which patients have EFGR-positive lung cancer, which is more common among non-smokers. The study will focus primarily on Chinese-, Filipina- and Japanese American women, but will include other Asian American ethnicities as well.


The research will begin to shed light on the issue of non-smoking lung cancer more generally and may also point to specific prevention, early diagnosis and treatment options for Asian women.


“This disease hits close to home for many of us and we hear from many women, ‘Why me?’ We look forward to starting to find some answers to help explain this health disparity,” said Cheng.