A study team at the Veteran Affairs San Diego Healthcare System found that two electronic cigarette (e-cigarette) products caused cell damage in ways that could lead to cancer. Findings from the study are published in Oral Oncology.

The damage occurred even with nicotine-free versions of the products, reported Dr. Jessica Wang-Rodriquez, one of the study’s lead researchers. E-cigarettes are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to the extent that conventional tobacco products are. Currently there is limited data on what exact chemicals e-cigarettes contain and whether those are safe, particularly in terms of cancer.

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Dr. Wang-Rodriquez and colleagues created an extract from the vapor of 2 popular e-cigarette brands and treated human cells in Petri dishes. The treated cells were more likely to exhibit DNA damage and die when compared with untreated cells. Specifically, the treated cells showed DNA strand breaks and were more likely to launch into apoptosis and necrosis, which ultimately result in cell death. 

Both nicotine and nicotine-free versions were tested for the 2 types of e-cigarettes. The study team discovered that the nicotine versions caused worse cell damage but even the nicotine-free extract was sufficient to alter the cells. More than the nicotine itself, researchers believe other variables in the e-cigarettes can cause cell damage as well. Formaldehyde, a carcinogen, and diacetyl, a flavoring agent, have already been associated with e-cigarettes. 

Study findings suggest that e-cigarettes are “not as safe as their marketing makes them appear to the public.” Through more studies, her team hopes to identify the individual components that are contributing to the effect. 

For more information visit research.va.gov.