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Unreviewed, preliminary conference paper brightens prohibitionists’ eyes

As they opened this week's copy of the science journal Nature, Stan Glantz, Tim McAfee, and Michael Bloomberg must have gone goggle-eyed with glee!

A conference paper or poster (the most preliminary stage of scientific findings, not yet "peer-reviewed, much less published or confirmed) at a gathering of the American Association for Cancer Research, reported having managed to stimulate cellular change by applying a "medium" saturated with e-cig vapor.

The report comes at a highly inopportune time for the vaping community and the e-cigarette industry, but it doesn't really add up to much. It is important not to simply write this off as yahoo science, a totally trumped up accusation, like some of the other skewed data often hurled at e-cigs in the prohibition effort.

Nature is a reputable scientific publication, and the AACR is no slouch either. But the findings (abstract here, and also presented at an earlier conference in January) are miniscule, they are nano-findings, and the danger they have nano-found is a nano-danger, so slight as to be negligible even if confirmed at the worst-case level.

Of course that will not stop e-cig prohibitionists from trumpeting it loudly as grounds for strict regulation. Harm reduction advocates need to know this, and need to know why it's so, even those of us, indeed especially those of us, who lack the scientific background to understand all the details. Let's start with the contrived character of the experiment. It was not in vito ("in life") but in vitro ("in a lab dish"), using cells from human bronchial passages that were "immortalized" or kept alive outside the body.

The substance applied to them was not e-cig vapor but "e-cig vapor-conditioned media", presumably "media" in liquid form.

The treated cells had already been genetically altered: the tumor suppressor gene p53 had been "silenced" and the gene KRAS (an "oncogene" or cell-growth stimulant) had been activated, "because p53 and KRAS mutations are often observed in the airway of current and former smokers at risk for lung cancer." After ten days of treatment with high concentrations of nicotine, "enhanced colony growth" (new tissue with a theoretical possibility of malignancy) was observed. Also, "diferentially expressed genes" (mutations) were observed.

The reasons these findings demonstrate only the possibility of a possibility are: first, genetic change ("differentially expressed genes") happens all the time in normal tissue, it is not always malignant. Second, tumors represent only one kind of cell growth. Also, the effects of a "vapor-conditioned medium" are not necessarily the same as those of vapor.

Furthermore, many everyday substances, administered in lab dishes at high concentrations, to cells modified to be mutation-prone, might cause mutations and cell growth. A "cell study" such as this one can only approximate the conditions of a "human epidemiological study" (in the words of eminent nicotine scientist Konstantinos Farsalinos). "The work is at a very early stage," admits the Nature article, "and therefore cannot establish that e-cigs can cause cancer in vitro, let alone in vivo."

So be forewarned, your local fire-breathing e-cig prohibitionist is going to be at you about this article.

Now you're forearmed too. (What you do with those other two arms is up to you.)