'Understanding how the genes are involved in disease … can help us design better treatments' Getty

British scientists have discovered why some smokers' lungs remain healthy throughout their lifetime, despite poisoning their respiratory system with tobacco products. The findings could help with finding better treatments for diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), the team funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC) said when the results were presented at the annual European Respiratory Society (ERS) meeting in Amsterdam.

The researchers found that certain people were less at risk of COPD despite smoking due to the genes they possess which affect how the lungs recover from injury. Conversely, some non-smokers were predisposed to the condition.

"Smoking is the biggest lifestyle risk factor for COPD. Many, but not all, smokers develop the disease. Genetics play a big part, as they do in smoking behaviour," said lead researcher Martin Tobin, from the University of Leicester."Our research helps to tell us why, paving the way for improved prevention and treatment. Stopping smoking is the best way to prevent smoking-related diseases such as COPD, cancers and heart disease."

The findings were discovered after the researchers used lung health data from 500,000 UK biobank participants. Some 50,000 of these people were specifically chosen for their lung health – which included smokers and non-smokers and all aged between 40 and 69. Scientists then compared these with a staggering 28 million genetic variants in each person and unearthed parts of the genome which had never before been linked to lung health.

A statement from the MRC read: "The discoveries help to explain why some people can have relatively good lung health, despite smoking, and why some can suffer from lung conditions even if they have never smoked before. Knowing why they are more likely to develop lung disease or to become heavy smokers is important for developing treatments for these diseases and for helping smokers to quit."

Professor Ian Hall, another lead-author from the University of Nottingham, said: "The drugs we use to prevent or treat diseases target the proteins in our bodies, and our genes influence the production of proteins. Understanding how the genes are involved in disease or in addiction to tobacco, can help us design and develop better and more targeted treatments that are likely to be more effective and have fewer side effects."

The study was carried out by the UK Biobank Lung Exome Variant Evaluation (UK BiLEVE) and published in The Lancet Respiratory Medicine.