Background: Moderately raised serum bilirubin levels are associated with lower rates of lung cancer, particularly among smokers. It is not known whether these relationships reflect antioxidant properties or residual confounding.
Objective: This study aimed to investigate potential causal relationships between serum total bilirubin and lung cancer incidence using one-sample Mendelian randomisation (MR) and UK Biobank.
Methods: We instrumented serum total bilirubin level using two variants (rs887829 and rs4149056) that together explain ~40% of population-level variability and are linked to mild hereditary hyperbilirubinaemia. Lung cancer events occurring after recruitment were identified from national cancer registries. Observational and genetically instrumented incidence rate ratios (IRRs) and rate differences per 10 000 person-years (PYs) by smoking status were estimated.
Results: We included 377 294 participants (median bilirubin 8.1 μmol/L (IQR 6.4-10.4)) and 2002 lung cancer events in the MR analysis. Each 5 μmol/L increase in observed bilirubin levels was associated with 1.2/10 000 PY decrease (95% CI 0.7 to 1.8) in lung cancer incidence. The corresponding MR estimate was a decrease of 0.8/10 000 PY (95% CI 0.1 to 1.4). The strongest associations were in current smokers where a 5 μmol/L increase in observed bilirubin levels was associated with a decrease in lung cancer incidence of 10.2/10 000 PY (95% CI 5.5 to 15.0) and an MR estimate of 6.4/10 000 PY (95% CI 1.4 to 11.5). For heavy smokers (≥20/day), the MR estimate was an incidence decrease of 23.1/10 000 PY (95% CI 7.3 to 38.9). There was no association in never smokers and no mediation by respiratory function.
Conclusion: Genetically raised serum bilirubin, common across human populations, may protect people exposed to high levels of smoke oxidants against lung cancers.
Keywords: lung cancer; oxidative stress; smoking cessation; tobacco and the lung.
© Author(s) (or their employer(s)) 2020. Re-use permitted under CC BY. Published by BMJ.