In a new study, researchers found vaping promotes the same cellular responses found in smokers who suffer from emphysema.
They found that the lungs of vapers—like the lungs of smokers—have elevated levels of protease enzymes, a condition causes emphysema in smokers.
The researchers also found that the nicotine in vaping liquids is responsible for the increase in protease enzymes.
The research was conducted by a team from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.
Vaping is thought to be much safer than cigarette smoking, which involves the high-temperature burning of tobacco leaves and the creation of toxic and carcinogenic combustion products.
Some researchers have urged that smokers switch to vaping as a much less harmful alternative.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has estimated that in 2014 about 9 million adults in the country were regular vapers and that close to 30 million had tried vaping at least once.
But vaping on this scale has been going on for less than a decade, and so the long-term health effects of vaping are not yet well understood.
In the study, the team measured levels of three key protease enzymes in lung fluid sampled from 41 subjects—nonsmokers, smokers, and vapers.
The three protease enzymes are neutrophil elastase and matrix metalloproteases 2 and 9. Immune cells in the lungs are known to secrete these enzymes at higher levels in a reaction to cigarette smoke.
Chronic overactivity of these protein-chewing enzymes damages the tiny sensitive air sac structures in the lungs that allow people to breathe.
In smokers, this damage is thought to be the cause of emphysema, a form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) involving progressive shortness of breath and for which there is no cure.
The team found that the levels of these three proteases were significantly elevated in both smokers and vapers, but not in nonsmokers.
This finding suggests vaping, like smoking, may promote emphysema.
The scientists also found evidence that nicotine in vaping liquids is the cause of the elevated-protease reaction.
They say the potential harm of vaping may have been underestimated, especially when it comes to emphysema and COPD, two of the most common debilitating conditions historically associated with smoking.
The team plans to follow up on their new study with a larger study of lung protease levels in hundreds of participants.
The study is published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.
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