Gene Study Sheds Light on Pregnant Women Who Smoke

KAIMUKI (KHNL) -- University of Hawaii doctors have identified a gene that appears to protect women from getting addicted to nicotine.

There's hope that the finding could help pregnant women who are desperately trying to quit smoking.

It can be an addiction so severe that some women can't stop smoking, even for their babies.

"I mean, I try not to smoke but I can't help myself," said Sally Tagaolo of Waipahu.

Tagaolo is expecting her fourth child. She says she doesn't want her baby to inherit the same health problems as her three sons. Two have asthma, and her oldest?

"As I was getting into my third semester I started smoking four packs a day. By the time I gave birth he had a heart murmur," Tagaolo said.

Tagaolo is one of Dr. Tricia Wright's patients seeking help at the Psychological Avenues To Health (PATH) clinic in Kaimuki, a place that treats women with various addictions. Dr. Wright says 8% of pregnant women in Hawaii smoke.

"Especially if you get out to the Leeward coast, 40% of women smoke during their third trimester despite all of the interventions and education that we're doing," said Dr. Wright, Assistant Professor at UH Manoa John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM).

Dr. Wright says genes could be partly to blame.

She studied pregnant women, 71 who smoke, 137 who don't, and found an altered gene linked with smoking. She says women who have this particular gene are less likely to get addicted.

"50% less likely to smoke, so it may be protective against severe addiction." said Dr. Wright.

The findings could pave the way for custom-made medicine based on a woman's genes. It's a breakthrough that could help expecting moms like Tagaolo breathe easier.

Dr. Wright recently presented her study to a national conference of maternal fetal medicine specialists. She conducted the research with Dr. Ken Ward, also of JABSOM. The National Institutes of Health funded their study through a grant.