Asymptomatic anthracosis is the accumulation of black carbon particles in adult human lungs. It is a common occurrence, but the pathophysiologic significance of anthracosis is debatable. Using in situ high mass resolution matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization (MALDI) fourier-transform ion cyclotron resonance (FT-ICR) mass spectrometry imaging analysis, we discovered noxious carbon-bound exogenous compounds, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), tobacco-specific nitrosamines, or aromatic amines, in a series of 330 patients with lung cancer in highly variable and unique patterns. The characteristic nature of carbon-bound exogenous compounds had a strong association with patient outcome, tumor progression, the tumor immune microenvironment, programmed death-ligand 1 (PD-L1) expression, and DNA damage. Spatial correlation network analyses revealed substantial differences in the metabolome of tumor cells compared with tumor stroma depending on carbon-bound exogenous compounds. Overall, the bioactive pool of exogenous compounds is associated with several changes in lung cancer pathophysiology and correlates with patient outcome. Given the high prevalence of anthracosis in the lungs of adult humans, future work should investigate the role of carbon-bound exogenous compounds in lung carcinogenesis and lung cancer therapy.


This study identifies a bioactive pool of carbon-bound exogenous compounds in patient tissues associated with several tumor biological features, contributing to an improved understanding of drivers of lung cancer pathophysiology.

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