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E-cigarettes may modify genetic material in oral cells

BOSTON, U.S.: Electronic cigarettes are becoming increasingly popular. Although they are viewed by some as a safer alternative to smoking, their effects are still relatively unknown. Presenting their findings at the 256th National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society in Boston, researchers from the University of Minnesota Masonic Cancer Center in Minneapolis have outlined how e-cigarettes may modify the DNA of oral cells and increase cancer risks.

“It’s clear that more carcinogens arise from the combustion of tobacco in regular cigarettes than from the vapor of e-cigarettes,” said the project’s lead investigator, Dr. Silvia Balbo. “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.”

To characterize chemical exposures during vaping (the inhaling and exhaling of e-cigarette vapor), the researchers recruited five e-cigarette users. They collected salivary samples before and after a 15-minute vaping session and analyzed the samples for chemicals that are known to damage DNA. To evaluate the possible long-term effects of vaping, the team assessed DNA damage in the cells of the volunteers’ mouths. The researchers used mass spectrometry–based methods they had developed previously for a study in which they evaluated oral DNA damage caused by alcohol consumption.

At a news conference held at the meeting on 21 August, co-researcher Dr. Romel Dator said: “After 15 minutes of vaping, the e-cigarette users’ acrolein levels increased in saliva by 30 to 60 times.” In their study, Dator and Balbo identified a total of three DNA-damaging compounds, formaldehyde, acrolein and methylglyoxal, whose levels all increased in the saliva after vaping. The danger is when the toxic chemicals react with DNA and cause damage. If the cell does not repair the damage so that normal DNA replication can take place, cancer could result.

The researchers plan to follow up this preliminary study with more extensive research 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 health, but our findings suggest that a closer look is warranted.”

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