Current Smoking Alters Gene Expression and DNA Methylation in the Nasal Epithelium of Patients with Asthma

Am J Respir Cell Mol Biol. 2021 Oct;65(4):366-377. doi: 10.1165/rcmb.2020-0553OC.


Current smoking contributes to worsened asthma prognosis and more severe symptoms and limits the beneficial effects of corticosteroids. As the nasal epithelium can reflect smoking-induced changes in the lower airways, it is a relevant source to investigate changes in gene expression and DNA methylation. This study explores gene expression and DNA methylation changes in current and ex-smokers with asthma. Matched gene expression and epigenome-wide DNA methylation samples collected from nasal brushings of 55 patients enrolled in a clinical trial investigation of current and ex-smoker patients with asthma were analyzed. Differential gene expression and DNA methylation analyses were conducted comparing current smokers with ex-smokers. Expression quantitative trait methylation (eQTM) analysis was completed to explore smoking-relevant genes by CpG sites that differ between current and ex-smokers. To investigate the relevance of the smoking-associated DNA methylation changes for the lower airways, significant CpG sites were explored in bronchial biopsies from patients who had stopped smoking. A total of 809 genes and 18,814 CpG sites were differentially associated with current smoking in the nose. The cis-eQTM analysis uncovered 171 CpG sites with a methylation status associated with smoking-related gene expression, including AHRR, ALDH3A1, CYP1A1, and CYP1B1. The methylation status of CpG sites altered by current smoking reversed with 1 year of smoking cessation. We confirm that current smoking alters epigenetic patterns and affects gene expression in the nasal epithelium of patients with asthma, which is partially reversible in bronchial biopsies after smoking cessation. We demonstrate the ability to discern molecular changes in the nasal epithelium, presenting this as a tool in future investigations into disease-relevant effects of tobacco smoke.

Keywords: DNA methylation; asthma; gene expression; nasal epithelium; smoking.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Asthma / genetics*
  • Cytochrome P-450 CYP1A1 / genetics
  • Cytochrome P-450 CYP1B1 / genetics
  • DNA Methylation / genetics*
  • Epigenesis, Genetic / genetics
  • Female
  • Gene Expression / genetics*
  • Genome-Wide Association Study
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Nasal Mucosa / metabolism*
  • Smokers
  • Smoking / adverse effects*


  • CYP1A1 protein, human
  • CYP1B1 protein, human
  • Cytochrome P-450 CYP1A1
  • Cytochrome P-450 CYP1B1