Saliva DNA Methylation Detects Nascent Smoking in Adolescents

J Child Adolesc Psychopharmacol. 2019 Aug;29(7):535-544. doi: 10.1089/cap.2018.0176. Epub 2019 Jun 10.


Objectives: Early identification of smoking, essential for the successful implementation of interventions, arrests the escalation of smoking and smoking-associated risk behaviors in adolescents. However, because nascent smoking is typically episodic and infrequent, enzyme-linked immunoassay reagent-based approaches that detect cotinine, a key nicotine metabolite, are not effective in identifying adolescents in the earliest stages of smoking. Epigenetic methods may offer an alternative approach for detecting early-stage smokers. In prior work, we and others have shown that the methylation status of cg05575921 of whole-blood DNA accurately predicts smoking status in regularly smoking adults and is sensitive to nascent smoking. Yet, the blood draws necessary to obtain DNA for this method may be poorly accepted by adolescents. Saliva could be an alternative source of DNA. However, the ability of saliva DNA methylation status to predict smoking status among adolescents is unknown. Methods: To explore the possibility of using salivary DNA for screening purposes, we examined the DNA methylation status at cg05575921 in saliva DNA samples from 162 high school aged subjects for whom we also had paired serum cotinine values. Results: Overall, the reliability of self-report of nicotine/tobacco use in these adolescents was poor with 67% of all subjects whose serum levels of cotinine was ≥2 ng/mL (n = 75) denying any use of nicotine-containing products in the past 6 months. However, the correspondence of the two biological measures of smoking was high, with serum cotinine positivity being strongly correlated with cg05575921 methylation (p < 0.0001). Receiver operating characteristic (ROC) analyses showed that cg05575921 methylation status could be used to classify those with positive serum cotinine values (≥2 ng/mL) from those denying smoking and have undetectable levels of cotinine. Conclusions: We conclude that saliva DNA methylation assessments hold promise as a means of detecting nascent smoking.

Keywords: AHRR; DNA methylation; adolescent; cg05575921; digital PCR; epigenetics; saliva; smoking.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Cotinine / blood*
  • DNA Methylation*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mass Screening / methods
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Saliva / chemistry*
  • Self Report
  • Smoking / genetics*
  • Smoking / metabolism


  • Cotinine