Leading UM Pulmonologist Awarded $1.95 Million Grant to Study Impact of E-Cigarettes

Matthias A. Salathe, M.D., professor of medicine and molecular and cellular pharmacology, and Chief of the Division of Pulmonary, Allergy, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine, was recently awarded a competitive $1.95 million grant from the Florida Department of Health to conduct an unprecedented study on whether e-cigarette vapors have toxic effects on human airways.

The study, said Salathe, will be the first of its kind to investigate potential pulmonary health risks of smoking e-cigarettes, which has become popular for a growing number of youth and adults looking for a safe and flavorful smoking sensation. A sizeable number of traditional smokers also have switched to e-cigarettes for their perceived safety over tobacco cigarettes. However, Salathe said, the advertised health benefits of e-cigarettes have yet to be proven.

“The need for this research originally started with the clear increase in e-cigarettes all over the world, and in particular the United States, and the lack of any data showing whether they are harmful or not,” said Salathe, who also serves as Director of the Cystic Fibrosis Center and the Clinical Research Center and a Co-Director of the Miami Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) ¡Alianza! Component.

E-cigarettes, he explained, were invented in China and introduced in the U.S. eight to nine years ago. Unlike traditional cigarettes where smoke is produced from burning tobacco, e-cigarettes produce a vapor from heated chemical compounds, including vegetable glycerin and propylene glycol.

“E-cigarettes are now used at drastic rates and indiscriminately, especially among teenagers. We’re going to look at whether they are as safe as they are touted to be,” Salathe said. “There are many unknowns with these devices, which similar to traditional tobacco cigarettes, could put our community at risk.”

Prior research has shown that the compounds released from e-cigarettes are harmful; however, there are no formal data that show how these compounds affect the human body and especially the airways, said Salathe. His very preliminary prior research suggests that e-cigarette vapors containing nicotine can cause changes in the airway epithelium, the cells that line our bronchi.

“We have an idea of the risks, and this study will allow us to do extensive and rigorous testing to put the science behind it,” said Salathe, who specializes in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and cystic fibrosis — both diseases with serious airway pathology.

Salathe plans to kick off the five-year, multi-faceted study this summer.

“This new grant will allow Dr. Salathe and his research team to answer important questions about the health effects of e-cigarettes and more broadly understand the triggers of lung disease,” said Roy E. Weiss, M.D., Ph.D., Chair of the Department of Medicine at the UM Miller School of Medicine.

As part of the research effort, Salathe’s team will study the chemical compounds that make up the vapors and the additive nicotine. The investigators will also use a highly sophisticated smoking robot to expose human airway cells to e-cigarette vapors with and without nicotine and track acute changes and long-term effects.

About 120 traditional smokers from South Florida who would like to transition to e-cigarettes will be recruited and studied to determine whether the change is an improvement for their airways or poses risks. Another cohort of exclusively e-cigarette users will also be examined in the study.

“We’re looking at regularly evaluated lung function in smokers but we will also measure inflammation and ion transport in the nose, which is usually abnormal among smokers. We want to determine whether e-cigarette vaping normalizes ion transport or not,” said Salathe, whose deep concern with the high number of teens and young adults using the devices was part of the impetus for the research.

“Personally, I’m just worried that such a high consumption is occurring without any serious research on whether vaping is safe. This is setting us up for a potentially huge public health problem,” he said. “The fancy advertising of e-cigarettes as harmless is reminiscent of the ‘50s and ‘60s when the tobacco-containing cigarette advertisements used cartoon characters to attract consumers.”

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