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Quitting smoking because of COVID-19? Nicotine replacement products may help spread cancer

A new study from Wake Forest School of Medicine finds that nicotine promotes the spread of lung cancer cells into the brain.

Quitting smoking because of COVID-19? Nicotine replacement products may help spread cancer
[Photo: Mathew MacQuarrie/Unsplash; rawpixel]
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The coronavirus pandemic provides an excellent reason to quit smoking: Smokers have terrible COVID-19 outcomes. But think twice before you hop on nicotine gum or nicotine patches. A new study finds that nicotine promotes the spread of lung cancer cells into the brain.

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Nicotine, the addictive chemical that cigarettes efficiently deliver to the brain, has long been considered a safe alternative to the myriad chemicals in cigarettes. It’s widely used to quit smoking in a variety of nicotine replacement products, but that safety is now being questioned. “Based on our findings, we don’t think that nicotine replacement products are the safest way for people with lung cancer to stop smoking,” said Kounosuke Watabe, Ph.D., professor of cancer biology at Wake Forest School of Medicine and the lead author of the new study.

Up 10% of people who use replacement products use them long-term, fueling the $63 billion smoking cessation industry. Researchers from Wake Forest School of Medicine studied 281 lung cancer patients, and realized that the cigarette smokers exhibited a higher incidence of brain cancer. Up to 40% of patients with non-small-cell lung cancer, the aggressive form most commonly developed by smokers, develop brain tumors, which have an average survival time under six months. The researchers then studied mice, and discovered that nicotine crosses the blood-brain barrier and changes a type of brain immune cell, the microglia, to encourage tumor growth.

Nicotine has long been known to have cardiovascular effects, but has also been found to have some benefits.

Unlike most studies, this one comes with a potential solution: The researchers looked for drugs that might reverse the brain metastasis effect, and identified parthenolide, which occurs naturally in a medicinal herb. They plan to test its efficacy at the Wake Forest School of Medicine in the coming months.