Are e-cigarettes safer than traditional cigarettes? New study aims to find out

August 31, 2017

By Maggie Klee

Electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) have been growing in popularity the past few years, especially among teenagers who have never smoked regular cigarettes. The fun and fruity flavors of e-cigarettes, along with the perception that they are a healthier way to smoke, has enticed young non-smokers to pick up the habit.

Though likely less toxic than traditional cigarettes, we still don’t know the long-term effects of these devices on our health. We do know that nicotine harms brain development and there is no health benefit for young adults who have never smoked to start using e-cigarettes. It is crucial to learn more about e-cigarettes and their potential to cause lung cancer, which has the highest rates of cancer cases and deaths around the world. Traditional smokers have 20 times greater risk of developing lung cancer than non-smokers.

The Prevent Cancer Foundation® is proud to fund a new research project aimed at studying the effects of e-cigarettes on human lungs. Jo Freudenheim, Ph.D., was awarded the Richard C. Devereaux Grant for this study to compare lung tissue from traditional smokers, never-smokers and e-cigarette users.

Dr. Freudenheim’s research team is currently studying lung tissue obtained by bronchoscopy, a procedure to examine the lungs and airways using a thin scope, in adults ages 21-30 who are never-smokers, smokers or e-cigarette users. Her team is examining the tissue for important biomarkers related to inflammation and cancer. With funding from the Prevent Cancer Foundation®, the team will also examine DNA methylation of cells, which is a mechanism used by cells to control gene expression. Altered DNA methylation is known to be important in the development of lung cancer and there are changes in DNA methylation with smoking. It is not known if e-cigs affect DNA methylation. The comparison of lung tissues from never-smokers, smokers and e-cig users will provide critical information regarding toxicity of e-cigarettes, including DNA methylation changes.

Dr. Freudenheim has dedicated 30 years of her career to cancer research. “It is very exciting to do research on what we can do to keep cancer from occurring and how to improve the outcome when it does,” she said. “Lung cancer is a leading cause of cancer morbidity and mortality. Annually, there are more than 1.8 million new cases and close to 1.6 million deaths from lung cancer worldwide, accounting for approximately 13 percent of all cancers. With electronic cigarettes being widely used by current smokers, former smokers and non-smokers, it is critical to understand their biological effects,” Dr. Freudenheim said.

We look forward to hearing future updates from Dr. Freudenheim on this incredibly important research project.

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