Trial uses smokers' DNA to determine which treatment helps them quit

By John Murphy, MDLinx
Published November 11, 2015

Key Takeaways

Kicking the habit is tough for every smoker who tries it, although it's harder for some than others. A new trial will determine if smoking-cessation therapies can use DNA to tailor treatments to individual smokers.

“We know that genetic variations make it more likely that some people will smoke more and that many will have a harder time quitting,” explained Laura Jean Bierut, MD, the Alumni Endowed Professor of Psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine, in St. Louis, MO. “We want to use this information to move closer to tailoring treatment to an individual smoker’s genetic makeup.”

The team’s previous research indicated that DNA variations can influence the effectiveness of smoking-cessation. Earlier this year, the researchers published a study showing that smokers with high-risk genetic markers are likely to take longer to quit, and they inhale more deeply when they smoke. 

“They have a four-year delay in quitting, and they have lung cancer four years earlier, compared to those with low-risk genotypes,” said Li-Shiun Chen, MD, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine. Yet, the same group with high-risk genetic markers is also more likely to respond to medications, she added. 

However, medications don’t help everyone equally. “It’s possible that different smokers need different medications, or even some smokers require only counseling,” Dr. Chen said. “Our goal is to help people quit smoking with evidence-based treatments.”

The researchers are now recruiting smokers in the St. Louis area for their trial. To be eligible, volunteers must be at least 21 years old and smoke 5 or more cigarettes (not e-cigarettes) daily. Study participants will provide saliva samples and will be interviewed about their smoking behaviors and overall health. 

Participants will be randomized into groups that will receive 1 of 3 different treatments: nicotine-replacement patches/lozenges, Chantix® (varenicline), or inactive placebo. All participants will receive counseling to help them quit smoking. For more information or to volunteer for the study, e-mail

“Quitting smoking is very hard,” Dr. Chen said. “We think we have the ability to provide more precise, tailored treatments matched to a person’s genetic makeup, but the only way to make sure is to do this type of study.”

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