Vaping — just like cigarettes — linked to disease-causing damage to your DNA

LOS ANGELES, Calif. — Vaping causes genetic damage that can lead to disease among e-cigarette users, just like conventional cigarettes, a new study warns. Researchers from the Keck School of Medicine at USC say the chemical alterations, called epigenetic changes, can cause genes to malfunction.

“Our study, for the first time, investigates the biological effects of vaping in adult e-cigarette users, while simultaneously accounting for their past smoking exposure,” says lead author Professor Ahmad Besaratinia in a university release.

“Our data indicate that vaping, much like smoking, is associated with dysregulation of mitochondrial genes and disruption of molecular pathways involved in immunity and the inflammatory response, which govern health versus disease state.”

Mitochondria are the power stations of cells, extracting and storing energy from digested food.

“When mitochondria become dysfunctional, they release key molecules,” Prof. Besaratinia explains. “The released molecules can function as signals for the immune system, triggering an immune response that leads to inflammation. Which is not only important for maintaining health but also plays a critical role in the development of various diseases, such as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, metabolic diseases, and cancer.”

Not a safer alternative to smoking?

Since hitting the market over a decade ago, e-cigarettes have become particularly popular among young people. They come in a variety of flavors and companies often market them as a safe alternative to tobacco products. However, many studies have suggested otherwise.

Researchers note that most vapers are either “dual users” who vape and smoke, or have a prior history of consuming traditional cigarettes. Now, the new study demonstrates these devices have a connection to adverse biological effects, irrespective of prior smoking history.

Study authors divided 82 healthy adults into groups of current vapers with and without a prior history of smoking, cigarette smokers, and a control group who never used either. They verified information through levels of cotinine, a byproduct of nicotine, in blood samples. Full DNA mapping and computer models found dysregulated genes in the blood cells of vapers increased.

“We found that more than 80% of gene dysregulation in vapers correlated with the intensity and duration of current vaping,” Prof. Besaratinia reports. “Whereas none of the detected gene dysregulation in vapers correlated to their prior smoking intensity or duration.”

The effects described in the journal Scientific Reports mirror those of smoking tobacco, which the team says cause even more extensive harm than vaping.

Vaping likely another source of cancer

The researchers have previously shown e-cigarette users develop some of the same cancer-related molecular changes in oral tissue as smokers. They also discovered vapers had the same kind of cancer-linked chemical changes to their genome. The latest study shows mitochondrial genes are preferential targets of gene dysregulation in both vapers and smokers.

Their findings also reveal that vapers and smokers had significant dysregulation of immune response genes. Evidence is growing that mitochondria play a critical role in immunity and inflammation.

“Given the popularity of e-cigarettes among young never-smokers, our findings will be of importance to the regulatory agencies,” Prof. Besaratinia concludes. “To protect public health, these agencies are in urgent need of scientific evidence to inform the regulation of the manufacture, distribution, and marketing of e-cigarettes.”

Researchers next plan to identify and investigate harmful chemicals common to both e-cigarette vapor and cigarette smoke.

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.