Have you ever wondered why it takes some people years to quit smoking, while others can stop cold turkey? According to UNC geneticist Helena Furberg, the answer is in our genes. Furberg led the Tobacco and Genetics Consortium to bring together genetic and lifestyle data from sixteen independent studies. They used data about whether people began smoking; if so, how old they were at the time; the number of cigarettes they smoked per day; and whether they were able to quit for more than a year.

Furberg and the consortium identified several genetic changes associated with smoking habits. Three of the changes are associated with how much people smoke, and the strongest of them is a single base-pair change, or single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP), in a nicotine receptor gene. Eight other SNPs are associated with starting to smoke, and one is identified with whether a person was able to quit.

Furberg believes that the next step is to conduct research in other disciplines to translate this genetic information into practical public health measures.

Right now, the results are most useful to addiction biologists, who can start looking at these genetic regions and figure out what they do,” Furberg says. She hopes this research can be used to develop personalized clinical treatments to help smokers quit for good.

Noor White is a research technician in biology at UNC.

Helena Furberg is an assistant professor in the Department of Genetics. Furberg and the Tobacco and Genetics Consortium partnered with the European Network of Genetic and Genomic Epidemiology, Oxford University, and GlaxoSmithKline to do analyses that identified the SNPs.