Why you should care
Because a product marketed as a safer cigarette might weaken your immune system … at a DNA level.
Puffing e-cigarettes — aka vaping — has never been hotter. The past few years have seen an explosion of bougie vape lounges, sexy vape pens, cloud competitions and a heady array of decadent e-juice flavors. (Blueberry cheesecake, anyone? Vanilla custard?)
The marketing of vaping as a safe alternative to cigarette smoking hasn’t hurt its popularity either. But a new study has cast a haze over those claims. Researchers led by Ilona Jaspers of the University of North Carolina School of Medicine found that vaping suppressed immune defense genes in the epithelial cells that line the nasal passages — not only the same genes that cigarette smoking suppressed but also hundreds more.
Jaspers’ team recruited 13 nonsmokers, 14 smokers and 12 vapers. For six weeks, the participants recorded the number of puffs and/or cigarettes they had each day. The researchers then measured markers of tobacco and nicotine in participants’ urine and blood samples to confirm that they had accurately reported their smoking status. They then used a plastic curette (which Jaspers compares to “a little, itty-bitty spoon”) to scrape off samples from the participants’ nasal passages. The researchers examined these so-called nasal epithelial cells because they express crucial immune defense genes, and they’re the first and major target of respiratory viruses. Their gene expression is also similar to that of lower airway epithelial cells, but easier to collect.
Compared with those of nonsmokers, the cigarette smokers’ nasal epithelial cells showed lowered expression of 53 genes essential for triggering the immune response.
The vapers’ epithelial cells showed reduced expression of a staggering 358 immune response genes, including those suppressed in smokers.
In fact, those 53 genes were suppressed at even lower levels in vapers. These changes might leave vapers vulnerable to respiratory infections. Most of the genes suppressed in smokers and vapers are involved in what’s known as the cytokine-cytokine receptor pathway. Epithelial cells act like a master switch, Jaspers explains. When attacked, they express proteins called cytokines that allow them to communicate with each other and orchestrate the immune response.
To be sure, “it’s a very small study,” says Shyam Biswal of Johns Hopkins University, who wasn’t involved in the study. E-cigs also contain lower levels of the toxic substances found in cigarettes. But recent studies have found they also contain substances not found in cigarettes. And since vaping emerged in the U.S. only within the past decade, it might have unforeseeable long-term impacts. Lung cancer, for instance, doesn’t emerge until after many years of cigarette smoking. At this point, “it’s very difficult to say whether [e-cigs] would cause an increase or decrease in disease,” Biswal says. But he says Jaspers’ study shows an important trend that reflects a health concern. Ultimately, he wants to see a larger, longer study on e-cig users. Jaspers and her team plan to do follow-up research — and since most members of the vaping group used to smoke cigarettes, the researchers also want to know if vaping would produce different changes in people who have never smoked.
Jaspers’ findings arrive on the heels of the Food and Drug Adminstration’s ruling, effective this August, to regulate e-cigs as tobacco products. That means e-cig ads can no longer claim they’re safer than regular cigarettes, and retailers can no longer sell them to kids under 18. “Young users are the most vulnerable,” Biswal says. E-cig use multiplied threefold among middle and high school students from 2013 to 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Jaspers says she’s not claiming that e-cigarettes are worse than regular cigarettes. For now, there simply isn’t enough research to draw a comparison. At the same time, she wants to make people aware that e-cigs are not likely without any effect. “I’m hesitant to say they’re safe based on the data we’ve gotten.”