Advancing the Science

Mayo Clinic Medical Science Blog – an eclectic collection of research- and research education-related stories: feature stories, mini news bites, learning opportunities, profiles and more from Mayo Clinic.

March 20, 2020

Mayo Researchers Develop Unique Tool, Lab to Study Vaping

By Advancing the Science contributor
Vaping devices
Common e-cigarettes and vaping juices

Jon Ebbert, M.D., is sympathetic to the plight of the patients he sees who are struggling with addiction. "I saw a lot of addiction growing up," he tells Rochester Magazine's Steve Lange. "I know the damage it can do."

Dr. Ebbert, a Community Internal Medicine physician and researcher in Mayo Clinic's Nicotine Dependence Center, also understands why it can be so hard for his patients to stop using tobacco despite the negative effects the drug has on their bodies. "I understand that life is complicated. I understand that what drives drug addiction is the innate desire that we all have to escape pain and discomfort. I understand that we all need coping mechanisms," he tells Rochester Magazine.

It's that compassionate, firsthand understanding that's driven Dr. Ebbert and fellow Mayo Clinic researcher Alexandra Ward to learn all they can about the chemical makeup of today's ever-increasing and ever-changing vape solutions. The two also work to discover what patients are inhaling when they use cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) for the treatment of medical conditions — in hopes of figuring out, once and for all, if any are safe to inhale. "Half a million people die in this country every year from cigarettes," he tells the magazine. "I'd love to find something safe to reduce that harm."

And as the magazine reports, he and Ward are giving it all they've got. They've established their own Inhaled Particle Aerosol Lab within Mayo Clinic's Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy lab to study the chemical make-up of vape, CBD and THC samples in a very unique, Star Wars-esque kind of way: By "force-feeding" today's "next generation of drug delivery devices — e-cigs and vaping pens" into a literal "Cigarette Smoking Machine" (CSM) that looks and sounds like it would fit in a galaxy far, far away. "When it inhales — when the motor-driven pump sucks superheated vapor from the e-cig into a whistling-lips-sized hole in its faceplate — CSM makes an adorable electronic chirping sound, like R2D2 whenever he's reunited with C3PO."

Connection to COVID-19

Because it attacks the lungs, COVID-19 could be an especially serious threat to those who smoke tobacco or marijuana or who vape, says the National Institutes of Health.

More information is available on the National Institute on Drug Abuse website.

In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have published special guidelines for people at risk of serious illness from COVID-19.

Mayo Clinic's complete set of COVID-19 related news and information is housed in a central location online.

That's a description that no doubt pleased Dr. Ebbert, as Lange notes the good doctor was wearing a pair of Yoda socks on the day of their interview. "We call her BB-Vape," Dr. Ebbert tells the magazine of the Jedi Master Cigarette Smoking Machine.

While Dr. Ebbert would like to find a safe smoking alternative for his patients, what BB-Vape is showing time and time again is that vaping, in particular, remains particularly unsafe. "When you take an e-liquid, and put it in this device and heat it, you develop at least 18 new chemical compounds that didn't exist in the e-liquid," Dr. Ebbert tells Rochester Magazine. "This is a reaction vessel with new chemical species being created, including chemicals like formaldehyde, which can cause cancer. I can't safely recommend any of these products to my patients right now. And I wish I could."

Dr. Ebbert's work with BB-vape and other addiction and tobacco cessation programs continues during the rising COVID-19 crisis. His sense of urgency is also rising because, "People who smoke or vape who already have compromised lungs," he says, "may put them at increased risk for complications from COVID-19." 

A version of this article was originally published on In the Loop.

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Tags: About, Alexandra Ward, COVID-19, Jon Ebbert, lung disease, medical research, Nicotine Dependence Center, People, republished, vaping

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