K-State researcher links cigarette smoke, vitamin A deficiency and emphysema

While studying the relationship between vitamin A and lung inflammation, a Kansas State University researcher made a surprising discovery — a link between vitamin A and emphysema in smokers. Richard Baybutt, associate professor of human nutrition, said his research could have a number of implications for smokers and the cigarette and health industries.

The discovery was accidental, Baybutt said, but the research project quickly shifted to investigate the link. “We essentially weren’t looking for it,” he said. “But we knew we had do this.”

According to Baybutt, his previous research had shown that rats fed a vitamin A-deficient diet developed emphysema, a lung disease found primarily in smokers. In his most recent research, Baybutt exposed a group of rats to cigarette smoke and found that those rats became vitamin A deficient. Benzopyrene, a common carcinogen found in cigarettes, is the link to the deficiency, Baybutt said. When fed to rats, benzopyrene induces vitamin A deficiency.

“When the lung content of vitamin A was low, the score of emphysema was high,” he said. “So, the hypothesis is that smokers develop emphysema because of a vitamin A deficiency.”

To further study the connection between smoking, vitamin A deficiency and emphysema, Baybutt began feeding the rats exposed to cigarette smoke a diet with higher levels of vitamin A. The result was what he had hoped.

“We saw that the areas of emphysema were effectively reduced,” he said.

Baybutt said he believes this might help explain the occurrence of emphysema.

“There are a lot of people who live to be 90 years old and are smokers,” he said. “Why? Probably because of their diet.”

The research still shows that smoking does not support a healthy lifestyle, Baybutt said.

“The implications are that those who start smoking at an early age are more likely to become vitamin A deficient and develop complications associated with cancer and emphysema,” he said. “And if they have a poor diet, forget it.”

Baybutt said he also hopes to investigate the link between vitamin A and lung cancer. Vitamin A has been asserted to have anti-cancer effects.

Baybutt’s work was published in the Journal of Nutrition (Vols. 130 and 133). Support for the research was provided by the Kansas Agricultural Experiment Station, the Unites States Department of Agriculture and the K-State Center for Basic Cancer Research.

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