Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), an incurable lung disease that causes difficulty breathing and other complications, is the third leading cause of death in the United States. Having reduced lung function increases the risk for COPD. Environmental factors, like smoking and nutrition, can affect lung function—yet these factors don’t affect everyone to the same extent. Research suggests that genetics can make some individuals more vulnerable to environmental factors than others. However, few interactions between specific DNA variants and environmental factors are known.
A new study, published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, supports the beneficial effects of some nutrients on lung function. Omega-3 poly-unsaturated fatty acids, commonly found in vegetable oils and fish, have anti-inflammatory properties that scientists have long suspected could combat lung inflammation. In this new study of more than 16,000 individuals, higher levels of the fatty acids known as docosapentaenoic acid (DPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) were associated with better lung function. This association was three times stronger in current smokers than in former smokers and people who have never smoked.
Further, by testing DPA and DHA for interaction with more than 7 million DNA variants across the genome, the study found a previously unknown variant in the DPP10 gene related to lung function. Individuals who carry this common variant are more likely to have reduced lung function; however, higher levels of DHA help to combat the genetic risk—leading to better lung function than those with lower levels of DHA.
This newly discovered DNA variant demonstrates the importance of considering genetics in the context of nutrition, smoking, and other environmental factors. Understanding these types of gene-nutrient interactions may be used in the future to personalize dietary advice for people with poor lung function who are at risk of COPD.
This study was supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and the Office of Dietary Supplements; researchers from RTI International (Dana Hancock) and Cornell University (Patricia Cassano) led the study.