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Genetic polymorphisms in the activation or detoxication of carcinogens, such as those in tobacco smoke, may produce differences in individual susceptibility to lung cancer. The cytochrome P450 CYP2E1 is an enzyme involved in the metabolism of nitrosamines in tobacco smoke. A polymorphism of CYP2E1 detectable by the restriction enzyme Rsa I may be functionally important becaue it is located in a putative binding site for the transcription factor HNF-1 and has been associated with higher levels of CYP2E1 transcription. It is conceivable that this CYP2E1 Rsa I polymorphism might contribute to differences in susceptibility to lung cancer. We conducted a case-control study of patients with incident lung cancer and population controls in Los Angeles County to examine the association between the CYP2E1 Rsa I polymorphism and lung cancer risk among African-Americans and Caucasians. Samples of white blood cell DNA sufficient for determination of the CYP2E1 Rsa I genotype by a polymerase chain reaction-based assay were obtained from 341 cases and 706 controls with data on lifetime smoking history. No subjects were homozygous for the CYP2E1 Rsa I rare c2 allele. The rare c2 allele was not associated with an increased risk of lung cancer (adjusted odds ratio, OR=0.72; 95% confidence interval, CI=0.35-1.46). Among the population controls the percentage of subjects carrying the rare c2 allele was lower (p=0.002) among African-Americans (2%) compared with Caucasians (8%). However, the association between the CYP2E1 Rsa I genotype and lung cancer risk did not differ between ethnic groups. There was no important association between the CYP2E1 Rsa I genotype and lung cancer risk in analyses stratified by cell-type, smoking history, gender, occupational asbestos exposure, and dietary intake of antioxidants vitamin C, vitamin E or betacarotene. Due to the low frequency of the c2 allele in these populations, larger studies would be necessary to rule out a modest association between the CYP2E1 Rsa I polymorphism and lung cancer risk.