The long-term health effects of e-cigarettes remain unknown, but toxicologists at UNC are now uncovering how use of e-cigarettes affect genes involved in upper airway immune system defense.
When we smoke cigarettes, dozens of genes important for our immune systems are altered in the cells that line the respiratory tract. Now, UNC School of Medicine scientists report that vaping electronic cigarettes alters those same genes and hundreds more that are important for immune defense in the upper airway.
The finding, published in the American Journal of Physiology, suggests that inhaling the vaporized flavored liquids in e-cigarettes does have consequences to our health, at least on the level of respiratory cells, and the critical process by which our genes give rise to proteins important for various cellular functions. The discovery cannot yet be linked to long-term health effects of e-cig use, or the risk of diseases usually associated with cigarette smoking, such as cancer, emphysema, or COPD.
The cells along our airways, from our noses to the tiny bronchioles deep in our lungs, need to function properly to trap and dispatch particles and pathogens so we don’t get sick. These epithelial cells are critical for normal immune defense. Certain genes in these cells must give rise to proper amounts of proteins, which orchestrate the overall immune response. It has long been known that cigarette smoking modifies this gene expression, which is one reason researchers think smokers are more sensitive to upper respiratory problems.
Inhaling burnt tobacco and inhaling vaporized flavored liquids are fundamentally different, and it’s more likely that e-cigarettes could induce different biological changes and play different roles in other respiratory problems. However, people have not been using e-cigs and vaporizers for very long, so no one knows yet how the effects of e-cigarette use might manifest in 10 or 15 years.