LSU researcher leads major study on effects of vaping

Updated: Mar. 3, 2020 at 9:32 PM CST
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BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - An LSU lab is on the front lines of an international crisis. Dr. Alexandra Noël is conducting a two-year research project funded by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to collect, measure, and evaluate information on the impact of vaping on the lungs. She hopes results from her studies will help Americans make informed decisions and keep them safe from the dangers of vaping.

As of February of 2020, a total of 2,807 Americans have been hospitalized with a vaping associated lung injury, and 68 people have died.

“It’s only the tip of the iceberg. Doctors are just now seeing the harmful effects,” said Dr. Noël, assistant professor of comparative biomedical sciences at the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine. “It’s mostly young people and mostly men.”

In the cases to date, scientists believe the main culprit is Vitamin E acetate. It showed up as an additive in some marijuana vaping cartridges, and research shows it can be harmful when inhaled. Dr. Noël is also looking at the vaping devices themselves. She believes there may be a link to certain atomizers and vapes with adjustable voltage. Her findings will go to government regulators.

“To be able to regulate the type of atomizers that are available on the market could be a way to prevent those adverse effects,” Noël explained.

According to Dr. Noël, who specializes in diseases of the lungs, cigarette smoking is a slow killer, but the relatively recent phenomenon of vaping involves different chemicals that can have a more rapid impact on health. Facts about vaping, including what chemicals make up the tiny particles that enter the lungs of users when the vapor is inhaled and how these facts affect health over the long term, are only just beginning to be scientifically documented.

“We are independently attempting to verify claims made by vaping device producers,” Noël said.

In the U.S., e-cigarette sales are increasing. According to the FDA, 25% of high school and middle school students vaped in 2018, and the numbers rose in 2019. An estimated 28% of high school students and 11% of middle school students said they’d used e-cigarettes as of late 2019, according to a report based on a national survey conducted that year. That amounts to 5.3 million young users.

Manufacturers don’t have to report e-cigarette ingredients, so users don’t know what’s actually in them, according to the NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). NIDA conducted a survey asking teens what was in their e-cigarettes, and 66% said just flavoring, 13.7% didn’t know, 13.2% said nicotine, 5.8% said marijuana, and 1.3% said “other.”

There are various types of e-cigarette devices available. Recent versions contain a tank where users can put their choice of substance, including flavored liquids and drugs. These substances affect the type of vapor inhaled into the lungs. One brand, Juul, offers candy, fruit, and mint flavorings that often appeal to young people. In an effort to quell an epidemic of 5 million teenagers vaping, some states, like New York and Michigan, have banned flavored e-cigarette liquids.

“Compared to other types of e-cigarettes, the Juul device heats liquid at a lower temperature, which allows the user to inhale nicotine with lower levels of harmful agents. Juul uses disposable pods, and you can’t change the device settings. We’re evaluating the effects of these devices as well,” Noël said.

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Dr. Noël has completed the first of two years of funded research on vaping. She has applied for an extension to continue the important work.

Conducting vaping research at a veterinary school may strike some as unusual, however, it fits within the heart of LSU School of Veterinary Medicine’s mission to teach, heal, discover, and protect. The school works with other universities, government agencies, and private organizations to improve the lives and health of both people and animals. A concept known as One Health recognizes that the health of people, animals, and the environment are inextricably connected.

“We hope to inform policymakers as they consider what they can regulate, for example, flavorings and types of devices. We give the FDA the information and help them make decisions to improve public health,” Dr. Noël said.

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