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Vaping damages DNA and raises risk of cancer – but is not as bad as cigarettes

Vaping damages people’s DNA in the same way as smoking cigarettes – though to a much lesser degree – a study has warned, writes Joe Davies for MailOnline. The biological changes can cause diseases such as cancer, according to University of Southern California research.

Vaping has been viewed as a safer alternative to smoking, with the United Kingdom mulling plans to prescribe e-cigarettes to cigarette users to help them quit.

There have been several studies that suggest e-cigarettes are harmful, but many questioned whether smoking was still to blame since most vapers also smoke traditional cigarettes or have a prior history of smoking.

But a team of researchers at the University of Southern California found that these biological changes happen even in vapers who've never touched a cigarette, according to the MailOnline story published on 23 November 2021. However, the changes are much more extensive in people who smoke cigarettes, the scientists said.

Laws restricting what manufacturers are allowed to put in vapes are stricter in the UK than the United States, so the American study may not entirely reflect effects of e-cigarettes available on the British market.

The study looked at 82 healthy adults and split them into three categories – current vapers, people who only smoke cigarettes, and a control group who had never smoked or vaped – MailOnline continues.

They then analysed the genes of all participants and looked for changes in gene regulation in the blood cells of each participant. When the normal regulation of genes is disrupted it can interfere with gene function, leading to disease.

The research studied 37 current vapers, 22 current smokers and 23 non-smokers in Los Angeles. Vapers who currently smoke were excluded from the results. They took blood samples from participants to determine how many corrupted genes were in the various groups.

After accounting for age and sex, they found a 'statistically significant' association of damaged genes in vapers – even if they had never smoked – reports MailOnline.

Dr Ahmad Besaratinia, lead author and professor of research population and public health sciences, said: “Our study, for the first time, investigates the biological effects of vaping in adult e-cigarette users, while simultaneously accounting for their past smoking exposure.

“Our data indicate that vaping, much like smoking, is associated with dysregulation of mitochondrial genes and disruption of molecular pathways involved in immunity and the inflammatory response, which govern health versus disease state.”

The study found that 12% of affected genes in vapers were in the mitochondria – the parts of cells that scientists say can help keep the immune system working effectively and prevent cancer and other diseases developing. The number of damaged genes in smokers was around 7.4 times higher than in vapers.

The researchers said results may have been affected by the higher number of vapers than smokers studied – 37 and 22 respectively, according to MailOnline.

Last month it was announced that England is set to prescribe e-cigarettes to help smokers quit. After undergoing a medicines approval process e-cigarettes may be offered via the National Health Service.

Some three million Britons use vapes at present, more than triple the 700,000 nearly a decade ago. By comparison, there are currently seven million smokers in the UK, down more than half on a decade ago.


Study details

A novel role for vaping in mitochondrial gene dysregulation and inflammation fundamental to disease development

Stella Tommasi, Niccolo Pabustan, Meng Li, Yibu Chen, Kimberly D Siegmund and Ahmad Besaratinia.

Author affiliation: Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California.

Published in Scientific Reports, Volume 11, on 23 November 2021.



We constructed and analysed the whole transcriptome in leukocytes of healthy adult vapers (with/without a history of smoking), ‘exclusive’ cigarette smokers, and controls (non-users of any tobacco products). Furthermore, we performed single-gene validation of expression data, and biochemical validation of vaping/smoking status by plasma cotinine measurement.

Computational modeling, combining primary analysis (age- and sex-adjusted limmaVoom) and sensitivity analysis (cumulative e-liquid- and pack-year modeling), revealed that ‘current’ vaping, but not ‘past’ smoking, is significantly associated with gene dysregulation in vapers.

Comparative analysis of the gene networks and canonical pathways dysregulated in vapers and smokers showed strikingly similar patterns in the two groups, although the extent of transcriptomic changes was more pronounced in smokers than vapers.

Of significance is the preferential targeting of mitochondrial genes in both vapers and smokers, concurrent with impaired functional networks, which drive mitochondrial DNA-related disorders.

Equally significant is the dysregulation of immune response genes in vapers and smokers, modulated by upstream cytokines, including members of the interleukin and interferon family, which play a crucial role in inflammation.

Our findings accord with the growing evidence on the central role of mitochondria as signalling organelles involved in immunity and inflammatory response, which are fundamental to disease development.


Daily Mail story – Vaping damages DNA and raises risk of cancer the same way as cigarettes, study claims — but it's not as bad as traditional smoking (Open access)


Scientific Reports article – A novel role for vaping in mitochondrial gene dysregulation and inflammation fundamental to disease development (Open access)


See also from the MedicalBrief archives


In world first, NHS may prescribe e-cigarettes for smoking cessation


E-cigarette users risk fewer strokes – but at a younger age – than smokers


Vaping is linked to heightened eating disorder risk among US college students


WHO versus Public Health England over e-cigarettes


E-cigarettes: What we know and what we don’t – Cancer Research UK




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