Being Open about COI

VCU researchers aim to educate the public about the dangers of e-cigarettes and produce results that would compel tighter government regulation.

This little gem comes via (yet another) ridiculously pointless “study” into the ‘effects of vaping’ by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University. A study that, by the way, has taken two years and collaboration between faculty from VCU’s Biomedical Engineering and Biology departments.

The study is one in a series of seven projects by research universities across the United States that look into the potential health impacts of e-cigarettes on parts of the head, face and oral cavity. Each study is funded with part of a $2 million grant from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, part of the National Institutes of Health.

So given money to churn out junk science natch. As noted in the article, the researchers aim is to “educate the public about the dangers of e-cigarettes” and as such are deliberately producing results that they can then take to legislators to shaft the industry.

Olivares-Navarrete and Dickinson plan to publish the study and release numerical data on their findings this summer.

Of course, so far there has been no formal publication in a journal yet (are you listening Tobacco Control Journal?), so once again we have science by press release.

A quick check of the “lead investigator” René Olivares-Navarrete, suggests quite clearly that he has little, if any, experience in this field of study and unsurprisingly, neither does his co-conspirator Amanda Dickinson. Yet, both are clearly claiming:

“the VCU study is one of the first to investigate how certain chemical compounds found in e-cigarettes could be linked to orofacial disorders.”

In other words, how vaping – and specifically nicotine natch – affects the mouth and face. Considering there haven’t been any significant reported instances of orofacial disorders related to vaping, especially in the last decade, it is a stretch of the imagination to suggest that there’ll be any.

“There’s no real study showing why vaping during pregnancy isn’t safe, or when it’s most dangerous during development,”

Wait a sec. They state “orofacial disorders”, but are talking about vaping during pregnancy? Of course, that is when development is at its most vulnerable. So we’re looking at how vaping affects the unborn, which they claim (correctly) hasn’t been done, but there is enough evidence to produce some guidance on the subject.

Dickinson said many smokers believe vaping isn’t harmful because e-cigarettes expose the body to fewer compounds than contained in tobacco cigarettes.

This again? Those that don’t believe the crappy propaganda being pushed by the zealots are right. Vaping isn’t harmful, and any exposure of “carcinogenic compounds” is orders of magnitude lower than found in smoking. We have substantial evidence of that.

There’s also no long-term research about the damage vaping could cause to the body over decades of use.

Yet more “we just don’t know” rubbish. We do know. We know more than enough. Science has advanced substantially since the early days of investigating any links (no matter how tenuous) to disease and smoking.

Olivares-Navarrete said one of the reasons e-cigarettes are so popular is because young people mistakenly don’t associate their use with smoking.

“The part that is amazing to me about e-cigarettes is that if you ask people who use them if they are smokers, they will say no, because for them, it is not smoking,” Olivares-Navarrete said.

Good grief, the wibble is strong in this one! Vaping is not smoking. It is abundantly clear that these researchers have a deep ideological bias, along with a complete lack of knowledge on the subject. Par for the course in this area of research I guess. But then, the NIH wouldn’t dish out millions of tax payer cash otherwise.

Surprisingly, for a news article, there is much detail about the study itself – despite the paper not being published in a journal, or being peer-reviewed (which we know is a thoroughly broken system when it comes to tobacco control):

Lab teams led by Olivares-Navarrete and Dickinson theorize certain e-liquid compounds could contribute to orofacial birth defects such as cleft palate, which is a gap in the skin of the upper lip and upper gum bones.

To gauge the risks of developing such disorders, both labs used animal models to simulate human pregnancies. The subjects were exposed to a solution created by infusing saline with e-liquid vapor.

The solution was created with an apparatus that simulates vaping. When e-cigarettes are used, e-liquids are heated and turn into vapor during each “drag.” The vapor is inhaled and chemical compounds are absorbed into tissues throughout the body. The apparatus mimics this process by using an atomizer to heat the e-liquid, turning it into vapor, which is then sucked through a syringe before it is infused with the saline. The end result is the solution used in experimentation.

Once again, we have an animal study to “simulate” what could possibly happen in a human. Except for one tiny little problem. In a human, we don’t infuse the aerosol with saline. We directly inhale said aerosol into our lungs. There’s very little interaction with human saliva, ‘cos that’d cause us to cough all the time if we started inhaling our saliva.

Suraj Kandalam, a biomedical engineering graduate student in Olivares-Navarrete’s lab, created the apparatus by modifying a pump used in previous studies on tobacco cigarettes. The updated machine is calibrated to mimic metrics such as the timing between puffs and puff duration for e-cigarette users. Kandalam said successfully modifying the machine was a way to contribute to a project with wide-reaching impacts.

“The reason I chose this project is that it’s practical and easy to verbalize to the community because they already know what electronic cigarettes are. Vaping is in everyday life,” Kandalam said. “I thought, maybe I can prove that e-cigarettes do have an impact. All of the research is still really new. There is still a story that needs to be told.”

Using the solution Kandalam made, Allyson Kennedy, a postdoctoral researcher in Dickinson’s lab, found incidences of cleft palates in frog embryos exposed to specific compounds in e-cigarette flavors during a key orofacial developmental stage.

So, taking a “standard” smoking machine, with a few modifications to mimic how a user would use a vapouriser. We’ve seen how that works out before. Amusingly, these researchers exposed frog embryos to the saline infused aerosol.

Here’s a tip, frogs are a freshwater species. They don’t fare at all well in salt-water conditions. They tend to get rather dehydrated, and the salt is more than a little toxic for them. You’d think that the researchers would know this right?

“I found certain flavors are worse [resulted in more clefts] than others. There’s one called ‘Nutz’ and it smells like coffee. In trials with this e-liquid, we did see some clefts,” Kennedy said. “It has a buttery taste that’s warm, like drinking coffee. The clefts could be caused by any number of chemicals but one possibility may be diacetyl, a compound that results in the buttery taste, but is shown to be bad for humans.”

Of course not, they’ll blame diacetyl – which has been thoroughly debunked so many times. There isn’t even a known incidence of “popcorn lung” being found in a smoker.

Olivares-Navarrete said his lab also found that high concentrations of nicotine present in some e-liquids may not only impact facial development, but could also negatively affect pregnancy term and viability. Researchers discovered that when pregnant mice were exposed to the e-liquid, the size of their litters was reduced. This could indicate that egg fertilization is inhibited, or that some fertilized eggs don’t reach full term.

Well yes, it is quite well-known that nicotine, can have these effects. But of course, most women won’t be exposing their unborn child to a saline-infused solution of aerosol. Nicotine exposure to a fetus happens through the blood stream (mostly), so the thing to look for is the blood-plasma levels, but these researchers didn’t bother to do that:

“Because we are funded by the NIDCR, we mostly focus on development in the head, but it is also important to tell people [vaping] can affect the chances for you to have a baby,” he said.”

So it’s a case of generating as much hyperbole as possible then.

If granted additional funding, the researchers aim to embark on new studies to further document the health hazards of e-cigarettes. They plan to learn if certain genetic predispositions—combined with the environmental stimulus of vaping—result in higher incidences of craniofacial disorders.

I think it’s a case of “when granted additional funding” ‘cos we know how the NIH likes to fund utter rubbish. It’s no wonder that there is a science line in addition to a date line.

See how it works yet?

(image credit Diego Cervo/