Enjoy the puff, without the harmful stuff. That’s how electronic cigarettes have been marketed. But with little research on how e-cigarettes and vaping can affect the human body, questions remain as to how safe this rapidly growing “safer alternative” to smoking really is.
After hearing that traces of heavy metals have been found in the vapor of e-cigarettes, College of Idaho biology professor Dr. Sara Heggland and her INBRE (IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence) lab decided to investigate.
“There are no federal regulations on what they put in the e-liquids,” Heggland said. “So it is kind of an open-ended, ‘what is this doing to the body?’ ”
And more specifically, Heggland and C of I junior Maggie Brown wanted to see how e-liquids affect bone health. So, they chose three different flavors of e-liquids (Mango Blast, Irish Latte and Sweet Melon), with and without nicotine, to expose bone cells to and test their ability to live. Heggland and Brown also wanted a non-flavored e-liquid to serve as the control. That didn’t exist in local vape shops, so Heggland had it custom made.
Part of the difficulty in performing the tests was deciding which e-liquids to test because there are so many flavors and varieties. And the fact that there is no standardization among e-liquids, and the liquid can vary from brand to brand and even from bottle to bottle, added to that difficulty.
The research team also wanted to figure out a way to vape the e-liquid and collect the vapor in a liquid extract to treat the cells. So they designed their very own vaping contraption in the lab with the help of C of I biology professor Dr. Luke Daniels. And early results showed an interesting pattern.
“We saw the flavored liquids had a more pronounced decrease in cell viability than our non-flavored e-liquids,” Brown said about the preliminary results. “But this is consistent with the findings of other researchers.”
Extravagant flavors are one of the biggest differences between tobacco cigarettes and their electronic cousins. Tobacco cigarettes cannot be flavored with anything other than menthol, because flavoring has proven to be an effective marketing strategy to target younger users. On the other hand, the flavors for e-cigarettes range from cotton candy and bubble gum to sweet melon and strawberrylicious. A 2012 report from the Centers for Disease Control estimated that 1.78 million students in grades 6-12 had tried e-cigarettes, though some states have legislation preventing the sale of e-cigarettes to minors.
While conducting the tests, Heggland and Brown weren’t sure if directly exposing bone cells to e-liquids would be of any relevance. But after hearing that young children have been able to open the bottles and drink them, resulting in nicotine poisoning, another dimension has been added to their research, Heggland said.
And after observing that e-liquids do decrease a cell’s ability to live, the next question for the lab is, “what is causing this decrease in cell viability?” That’s a question Heggland and Brown will continue to pursue as the school year goes on.
“I’m really excited,” Brown said. “There are a lot of different avenues we can go down. Since the research [on e-cigs] is so limited, there is a lot that we can figure out.”
For Brown, the chance to get hands-on experience as an undergraduate was a major checklist item she had as she applied to colleges in pursuit of her larger dream to go to medical school.
“I found participating in INBRE and participating in the lab during the school year has been an amazing opportunity,” said Brown, who started out in Heggland’s lab by learning cell culture techniques.
And while Heggland is excited about the addition of this new project to her lab, she’s also enjoyed seeing Brown’s enthusiasm. After all, seeing a student eagerly pursue their research is the biggest reward of teaching, she said.
“My research lab is my classroom,” Heggland said. “I love getting students in the lab, getting them excited about science, taking ownership of a project and helping them through the ups and downs.”