Mechanical and aerospace engineering (MAE) professor Cristina Davis’ group will lead one of the largest studies to-date on the health effects of e-cigarette use, or vaping. In the three-year, $1 million study funded by the UC Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program (TRDRP), the team will collect samples from over 600 volunteers to understand how vaping affects the pulmonary system, especially in comparison to smoking cigarettes.
Every time a person exhales, they emit thousands of chemicals ranging from small volatile organic compounds that make their breath smell to large metabolites from the throat and lungs that can be indicators of their health. Davis’ team at the Bioinstrumentation and BioMEMS Lab has pioneered small handheld devices to capture these chemicals and learn which of them correspond to diseases associated with smoking, asthma, the flu or even COVID-19. With this new grant, they hope to pivot this research toward vaping.
“If we can collect breath from people who smoke tobacco, who smoke cannabis, who vape nicotine and vape THC—there’s hundreds of biomarkers that we can use to assess your pulmonary health condition,” said Mitch McCartney, the lab’s director of research.
Compared to cigarette smoking, very little is known about how safe vaping is in the short term and long term. This is partly because vaping is a relatively new phenomenon, but also because of the number of variables involved compared to cigarettes. There are different types of vaping devices made with different materials and different heating coils—some of which can be controlled to heat the plume to a specific temperature and others that can release toxic metals that vapers inhale. On top of that, users can vape either nicotine or THC and in different concentrations.
“What we’re going into is really unknown, because no one has done a large-scale observational study like this before,” said McCartney. “We really just want to be able to say, ‘this is what we’ve observed’ and paint a picture of how vaping impacts health relative to traditional cigarettes.”
The team will collect breath and urine samples from participants and plans to look at endogenous metabolites—compounds in breath that show how healthy the airway is—and toxic chemicals like heavy metals that shouldn’t be in the samples and likely came from vaping.
Because it’s such a young field, breath research also stands to benefit from the study’s observational data of chemicals in people’s breath, and from its potential impact.
“A huge study like this is going to be really important because it’s going to demonstrate how useful breath analysis can be in public health,” said McCartney.
The project is funded by the California Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program. Funded by taxes on nicotine products and run by the University of California, the TRDRP program supports projects that study the negative effects of smoking and new avenues for therapy.