Bad news for e-cigarette users: experts suggest that vaping is no safer than smoking. In a new study, e-cigarette vapor was found to damage human cells via the same mechanisms that cause cancer.
Researchers from Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System performed the experiment by deriving an extract from the vapor of two popular e-cigarette brands. They then used the agent to treat human cells in a Petri dish and compared it with an untreated set of cells.
The result? Treated cells exhibited an increased likelihood of DNA damage and death.
The cells exuded different types of cellular damage, such as disruption in DNA strands. The common double helix DNA contains two intertwining strands of molecules. When one or both strands break and repair does not take place, cancer development is more likely to begin.
The treated cells also showed a more increased risk of developing necrosis and apoptosis or programed cell death.
"There haven't been many good lab studies on the effects of these products on actual human cells," says Dr. Jessica Wang-Rodriquez, one of the lead authors and a head and neck cancer specialist from University of California, San Diego. She added that the findings strongly implicate that e-cigarettes are not as safe as how they are portrayed in the market.
For the core of the study, the experts used normal cells from the linings of organs, glands and cavities, such as the mouth and lungs.
Aside from nicotine being the main ingredient that makes smoking addictive, it is also recognized to impair cells. For the experiment, the researchers used nicotine and non-nicotine e-cigarettes for comparison of results. They found that nicotine versions cause more damage, but non-nicotine ones also exhibited cell-altering properties.
Nicotine may not be the only one. At present, the team is trying to identify other substances found in e-cigarette vapor that contribute to cell damage. Among the agents recognized early are formaldehyde, which is a known carcinogen, and diacetyl, which has been connected to lung disease.
The authors acknowledged various limitations to their investigation. First, the cells they used were not completely the same with human living cells. The samples they used were already "immortalized" and for this, some changes in cellular makeup may have already taken place.
Another limitation is not being able to use the actual dose of vapor that users get from using e-cigarettes. The amount of vapor used was more or less equivalent to multiple hours of vaping so the dose tested may be higher than normal. They are now working on controlling the dosage as they want to know at what vapor dose cellular damage begins.
In the end, the main question remains: are e-cigarettes any safer than tobacco cigarettes?
"Further assessment of the potential carcinogenic effects of e-cigarette vapor is urgently needed," the authors wrote.
About 500 different brands and 7,000 flavors of e-cigarettes are sold in the market. Determining the dangers of each individual product is gruesome but Wang-Rodriguez said they hope to identify relevant individual ingredients.
The study published in the journal Oral Oncology.