Researchers observed epigenetic changes in DNA linked to cancer in vapers that they have observed in smokers, according to a recent study. The team found that people who vape and people who smoke cigarettes show similar chemical modifications in parts of their DNA and their overall genome.
These chemical alterations, also called epigenetic changes, can lead to malfunctioning genes. This is why they are frequently linked with cancer, along with many other serious illnesses.
The Vaping Epigenetic Study
The team set out to determine whether vaping is a safer alternative to smoking. However, the team also designed the study to focus on people who vaped without ever smoking, to help tease out the issue of epigenetic changes.
The researchers examined a group of 45 study participants divided into three categories. The subjects were matched for gender, race, and age, and then divided into three equal categories: smokers only, vapers only, and controls who had neither smoked nor vaped.
The study was not public, and I could not determine whether THC vaping or any other sort of “vaping” was considered.
The team then drew blood from each participant. Their aim was to test for changes in baseline levels of two chemical tags attached to DNA. The first was a particular DNA sequence of methyl groups called Long Interspersed Nucleotide Element 1 (LINE-1). The second was the genome’s overall hydroxymethyl groups.
These chemical tags affect gene function and activity, including how genes are expressed in the body, and the overall stability of the genome. Changes in the levels of these tags take place naturally at different times of life, but they also happen as part of disease processes such as cancer.
Both smokers and vapers showed significantly reduced levels of both types of chemical tags compared to controls.
“That doesn’t mean that these people are going to develop cancer,” Dr. Ahmad Besaratinia, associate professor at the USC Keck School of Medicine, said in press materials. “But what we are seeing is that the same changes in chemical tags detectable in tumors from cancer patients are also found in people who vape or smoke, presumably due to exposure to cancer-causing chemicals present in cigarette smoke and, generally at much lower levels, in electronic cigarettes’ vapor.”
Vaping and Cancer
This is the first time research has proved that these biologically important changes take place in the blood cells of both smokers and vapers. However, past work has connected vaping and abnormal activity in cancer-linked genes.
The same team conducted a 2019 study on changes in gene expression. That work focused on mouth skin cells from smokers, vapers, and controls. Similar to these results, that research showed that both smokers and vapers exhibited an abnormally large number of expressed cancer-linked genes.
“Our new study adds an important piece to that puzzle by demonstrating that epigenetic mechanisms, specifically changes in chemical tags attached to the DNA, may contribute to the abnormal expression of genes in vapers and smokers alike,” Besaratinia said in the materials.
Next, the team will analyze the entire genome. Their goal is to identify and compare all of the genes these two chemical changes target in smokers and vapers. Ultimately, this may help regulators determine the relative safety of smoking and vaping, and provide lawmakers with better information.