Hundreds of genetic variants found by UMN researchers affecting tobacco, alcohol use

Genes could be used to inform future treatments for people predisposed to addiction.

by Katie Salai

Recent University of Minnesota research discovered 566 genetic variations that are linked to tobacco and alcohol addiction.

Researchers on the study, including University researcher and faculty member in the department of psychology Scott Vrieze, discovered specific genetic locations connected to addiction potential for alcohol and tobacco. The study, which was published Jan. 14, also found that a higher genetic risk to take up smoking may lead to higher risk of various health conditions, like coronary artery disease. But a higher genetic risk for alcohol does not have the same association. 

“The question is whether the genes contribute independently to certain diseases, like chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases or lung disease, or whether it’s mediated by heavy smoking,” said Dorothy Hatsukami, a University researcher specializing in tobacco addiction.

Genetic risk for alcohol and drug abuse does not change over the course of someone’s life, but Hatsukami hopes the future of smoking will focus on reducing harm. Hatsukami said national research is interested in how the reduction of nicotine in cigarettes could affect addiction rates. 

“Hopefully, by understanding some of the genes and the function of the genes, that might help us to clarify what might be contributing to either smoking initiation, dependence or problems with cessation [so that] we can discover more targets for therapy,” Hatsukami said. 

Many local groups aim to decrease smoking while balancing the rise and popularity of e-cigarettes. Hatsukami said research is ambiguous regarding the impact e-cigarettes have on the risk of transitioning to smoking cigarettes. 

Laura Smith, public affairs manager for ClearWay, a Minneapolis nonprofit dedicated to reducing tobacco use, said the rise of e-cigarettes has stalled the progress of reducing tobacco use in Minnesota.

“We noticed that after 2013, when we raised the tax, we had a lot of people who were motivated to quit,” Smith said.

Hatsukami hopes the research completed by Vrieze’s team will lead to a better understanding of tobacco addiction and more specialized treatments. She noted that people who metabolize nicotine more slowly benefit most from nicotine replacement therapy.

“[The research] is important for targeted therapy, [it] helps to identify what people will benefit from what medications,” Hatsukami said.