Health & Studies

UCL Cheek DNA Research

A team of researchers at University College London have published a study looking at the impact of vape on cheek cell DNA causing the media to have a predictable response

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A team of researchers at University College London have published a study looking at the impact of vape on cheek cell DNA causing the media to have a predictable response. The team stated that “e-cigarette users with a limited smoking history experience similar DNA changes to specific cheek cells as smokers”.

The national media responded with bold banner headlines:

  • Vaping 'linked to cancer and damages body like smoking'” – The Times
  • Vaping causes the same DNA changes as smoking” – ITV News
  • Vaping: Smoking research shows e-cigarettes could be linked to lung cancer risk” – Sky News
  • Fears vaping could cause CANCER” – Daily Mail
  • Vaping 'causes same DNA changes as smoking' and could lead to cancer” – Daily Express
  • Vapers suffer 'similar' DNA damage to smokers” – The Sun

The authors of the study said: “This study is an incremental step in helping researchers to build a deeper understanding of the long-term effects of e-cigarettes on health. Although it does not show that e-cigarettes cause cancer, studies with long-term follow up are important to assess whether e-cigarettes have harmful effects and, if so, what they are.”

It does not show that e-cigarettes cause cancer” – UCL research team

The study, published in Cancer Research, analysed the “epigenetic effects of tobacco and e-cigarettes on DNA methylation in over 3,500 samples”, to investigate the impact on cells that are directly exposed to tobacco (e.g. in the mouth) and those that are not directly exposed (e.g. in blood or cervical cells).

They continue: “The epigenome refers to an extra layer of information that is superimposed on our genetic material – the DNA. While DNA can be compared to the ‘hardware’ of a computer, epigenetics are comparable to the computer’s ‘software’ and define how, where and when the programs used by the computer are run.”

The research: Cigarette smoking and e-cigarette use induce shared DNA methylation changes linked to carcinogenesis.

The type of epigenomes change they were looking for is called DNA methylation.

The researchers say that found that epithelial cells (cells that typically line organs and are often the cells of origin for cancer) in the mouth showed substantial epigenomic changes in smokers. Importantly, these changes are further elevated in lung cancers or pre-cancers (abnormal cells or tissue that have the potential to develop into cancer), when compared to the normal lung tissue, supporting the idea that the epigenetic changes associated with smoking allow cells to grow more quickly.

Their published research says it holds new data which shows similar epigenomic changes in observed in the cells of e-cigarette users who had only ever smoked less than 100 tobacco cigarettes in their lives.

Dr Chiara Herzog says: “This is the first study to investigate the impact of smoking and vaping on different kinds of cells – rather than just blood – and we’ve also strived to consider the longer-term health implications of using e-cigarettes.

We cannot say that e-cigarettes cause cancer based on our study, but we do observe e-cigarette users exhibit some similar epigenetic changes in buccal cells as smokers, and these changes are associated with future lung cancer development in smokers. Further studies will be required to investigate whether these features could be used to individually predict cancer in smokers and e-cigarette users.

“While the scientific consensus is that e-cigarettes are safer than smoking tobacco, we cannot assume they are completely safe to use and it is important to explore their potential long-term risks and links to cancer.

“We hope this study may help form part of a wider discussion into e-cigarette usage – especially in people who have never previously smoked tobacco.”

Professor Martin Widschwendter added: “The epigenome allows us, on one side, to look back. It tells us about how our body responded to a previous environmental exposure like smoking. Likewise exploring the epigenome may also enable us to predict future health and disease. Changes that are observed in lung cancer tissue can also be measured in cheek cells from smokers who have not (yet) developed a cancer.

"Importantly, our research points to the fact that e-cigarette users exhibit the same changes, and these devices might not be as harmless as originally thought. Long-term studies of e-cigarettes are needed. We are grateful for the support the European Commission has provided to obtain these data.”

The researchers involved in the study says they now hope to further investigate how epigenetic changes related to smoking in cheek swabs could be used for identifying individuals at highest risk of developing cancer and assess the long-term health risks of e-cigarettes.

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Dave Cross

Journalist at POTV
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Dave is a freelance writer; with articles on music, motorbikes, football, pop-science, vaping and tobacco harm reduction in Sounds, Melody Maker, UBG, AWoL, Bike, When Saturday Comes, Vape News Magazine, and syndicated across the Johnston Press group. He was published in an anthology of “Greatest Football Writing”, but still believes this was a mistake. Dave contributes sketches to comedy shows and used to co-host a radio sketch show. He’s worked with numerous vape companies to develop content for their websites.

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