Researchers at KU Medical Center using ‘vaping robot’ to study effects of e-cigarettes

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Researchers at the University of Kansas Medical Center are using a “vaping robot” to study the effects of smoking e-cigarettes.

Dr. Matthias Salathe is a pulmonologist and professor at KU Med. He’s been skeptical of the perception that somehow vaping is safer than smoking since e-cigs were introduced to the U.S more than a decade ago.

“When you hear vaping is safe, be careful is what that means,” Salathe said. “The lungs are exposed to a gigantic concentration of nicotine.”

He’s been researching the topic for more than four years. He’s currently heading a team of researchers at KU Med using a “vaping robot” or smoking machine.

“We isolate airway epithelial cells, these cells that line the airway, and we put them into a culture system, so they look and behave like the regular cells that human beings have in their bodies,” he explained.

The robot takes the e-cigarette and sucks the vapor, containing nicotine, into a receptacle and then exposes it to the epithelial cells, which come from people who donate their bodies to science.

“With the robots, we can expose those cells in a very controlled fashion to this vapor,” Salathe said.

The researchers can control nicotine and vaping exposure and restrict pathways. The exposed cells allow researchers to examine possible inflammation.

“They show that when you vape cells, meaning when you expose cells to vapor, they start to have inflammatory changes,” he said.

Salathe said inflammation can make it hard to clear the mucus in a person’s airways -- like smoking cigarettes -- which could lead to lung or respiratory issues.

“There’s a clear reduction in the vape compared to the cigarette smoke, but the reduction doesn’t translate into it’s safe,” he said.

Salathe said while it may take decades before scientists truly know the effects of vaping, the “absence of evidence doesn’t mean it’s safe.”

He's most concerned with teens who have never smoked or believe vaping is a better alternative, especially since many vaping companies use sweet flavors to mask the flavor of nicotine.

On Thursday, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced that it had identified 1,080 cases of lung illnesses linked to vaping, an increase of 275 since last week.

At least 19 people have died. Many of the severe lung injuries have been associated with THC vapes that may have been altered.

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