Scientists reveal e-cigarettes may trigger unique immune responses

As the debate over the safety of electronic cigarettes rages, a new study found that e-cigarettes trigger damaging immune responses not seen from tobacco cigarettes.

A new study finds e-cigarettes may trigger damaging immune responses not previously seen from traditional cigarettes. Photo by lindsayfox/Pixabay
A new study finds e-cigarettes may trigger damaging immune responses not previously seen from traditional cigarettes. Photo by lindsayfox/Pixabay

Research from the University of North Carolina has found that not only do e-cigarettes cause potentially damaging immune responses seen in traditional cigarettes, but they can also trigger a new immune response that has not been seen before in traditional cigarettes.

“There is confusion about whether e-cigarettes are ‘safer’ than cigarettes because the potential adverse effects of e-cigarettes are only beginning to be studied,” Dr. Mehmet Kesimer, an associate professor of pathology at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, said in a press release. “Our results suggest that e-cigarettes might be just as bad as cigarettes.”

In 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration expanded its oversight of tobacco products to include e-cigarettes after ongoing questions about their health effects and safety.

An earlier study in September by the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm found that nicotine in e-cigarettes can cause stiffened arteries leading to an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

In June, researchers at the University of Connecticut found that e-cigarettes contain a nicotine-based liquid as harmful as unfiltered tobacco cigarettes and that the vapor from non-nicotine e-cigarettes can lead to similar amounts of DNA damage as filtered cigarettes.

For this study, researchers compared sputum samples from 15 e-cigarette users, 14 traditional cigarette smokers and 15 non-smokers.

E-cigarette and traditional cigarette smokers both showed significant increases in biomarkers of oxidative stress and the activation of defense mechanisms linked to lung disease. They also found increased mucus secretions including mucin 5AC, which has been linked to chronic bronchitis, asthma, wheezing and bronchiectasis.

But researchers also found immune response triggers that were unique to e-cigarette smokers alone.

E-cigarette smokers had significant increases in neutrophil granulocyte and neutrophil extracellular trap-related proteins that contribute to inflammatory lung diseases like cystic fibrosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

They also found the NETs, neutrophils that are associated with cell death in tissues lining the blood vessels and organs, existing outside the lung. This finding has researchers concerned about potential systemic inflammatory diseases like lupus.

“Our data shows that e-cigarettes have a signature of harm in the lung that is both similar and unique, which challenges the concept that switching from cigarettes to e-cigarettes is a healthier alternative.” Kesimer said.

By Amy Wallace