Though touted as a safer alternative to traditional cigarettes, electronic cigarettes may modify the DNA of oral cells and increase cancer risks, according to researchers at the University of Minnesota Masonic Cancer Center.
“E-cigarettes are a popular trend, but the long-term health effects are unknown,” said Romel Dator, PhD, a postdoctoral associate at the center. “We want to characterize the chemicals that vapors are exposed to as well as any DNA damage they may cause.”
“It’s clear that more carcinogens arise from the combustion of tobacco in regular cigarettes than from the vapor of e-cigarettes,” said Silvia Balbo, PhD, lead investigator and a member of the center.
“However, we don’t really know the impact of inhaling the combination of compounds produced by this device. Just because the threats are different doesn’t mean that e-cigarettes are completely safe,” Balbo said.
To characterize chemical exposures during vaping, the researchers recruited five e-cigarette users. They collected saliva samples before and after a 15-minute vaping session and analyzed them for chemicals that are known to damage DNA.
To evaluate possible long-term effects, the team assessed DNA damage in the cells of the volunteers’ mouths. They used methods based on mass spectrometry that they had developed previously for a different study of DNA damage caused by alcohol consumption.
The researchers identified three DNA-damaging compounds—formaldehyde, acrolein, and methylglyoxal—whose levels increased in the saliva after vaping. Compared with people who don’t vape, four of the five users showed increased DNA damage related to acrolein exposure.
The type of damage, called a DNA adduct, occurs when toxic chemicals such as acrolein react with DNA. If the cell does not repair the damage so normal DNA replication can take place, cancer could result.
The researchers plan to follow up this preliminary study with a larger one involving more e-cigarette users and controls. They also want to see how the level of DNA adducts differs between e-cigarette users and regular cigarette smokers.
“Comparing e-cigarettes and tobacco cigarettes is really like comparing apples and oranges. The exposures are completely different,” said Balbo. “We still don’t know exactly what these e-cigarette devices are doing and what kinds of effects they may have on our health, but our findings suggest a closer look is warranted.”
The results of the study were presented at the 256th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society, August 20, in Boston.
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