Chronic mucous hypersecretion (CMH) contributes to COPD exacerbations and increased risk for lung cancer. Because methylation of gene promoters in sputum has been shown to be associated with lung cancer risk, we tested whether such methylation was more common in persons with CMH.
Eleven genes commonly silenced by promoter methylation in lung cancer and associated with cancer risk were selected. Methylation specific PCR (MSP) was used to profile the sputum of 900 individuals in the Lovelace Smokers Cohort (LSC). Replication was performed in 490 individuals from the Pittsburgh Lung Screening Study (PLuSS).
CMH was significantly associated with an overall increased number of methylated genes, with SULF2 methylation demonstrating the most consistent association. The association between SULF2 methylation and CMH was significantly increased in males but not in females both in the LSC and PLuSS (OR = 2.72, 95% CI = 1.51-4.91, p = 0.001 and OR = 2.97, 95% CI = 1.48-5.95, p = 0.002, respectively). Further, the association between methylation and CMH was more pronounced among 139 male former smokers with persistent CMH compared to current smokers (SULF2; OR = 3.65, 95% CI = 1.59-8.37, p = 0.002).
These findings demonstrate that especially male former smokers with persistent CMH have markedly increased promoter methylation of lung cancer risk genes and potentially could be at increased risk for lung cancer.