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Though touted as a safer alternative to traditional cigarettes, electronic cigarettes may modify the DNA of oral cells and increase cancer risks, according to researchers at the University of Minnesota Masonic Cancer Center. “E-cigarettes are a popular trend, but the long-term health effects are unknown,” said Romel Dator, PhD, a postdoctoral associate at the center.

“However, we don’t really know the impact of inhaling the combination of compounds produced by this device. Just because the threats are different doesn’t mean that e-cigarettes are completely safe,” Silvia Balbo, PhD, lead investigator and a member of the center. To evaluate possible long-term effects, the team assessed DNA damage in the cells of the volunteers’ mouths.

The researchers identified three DNA-damaging compounds---formaldehyde, acrolein, and methylglyoxal---whose levels increased in the saliva after vaping. Compared with people who don’t vape, four of the five users showed increased DNA damage related to acrolein exposure. The type of damage, called a DNA adduct, occurs when toxic chemicals such as acrolein react with DNA. If the cell does not repair the damage so normal DNA replication can take place, cancer could result.

The researchers plan to follow up this preliminary study with a larger one involving more e-cigarette users and controls. They also want to see how the level of DNA adducts differs between e-cigarette users and regular cigarette smokers.

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