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Lab at U of L doing FDA research to uncover killer compounds in vaping

A University of Louisville lab trying to unlock the mystery of what’s in e-cigarettes that’s killing people.

Behind a locked door, U of L professor of medicine Daniel Conklin leads a team of researchers examining popular vaping brands. “We’re testing JUUL mango, JUUL menthol and JUUL Virginia tobacco,” he explains.

Those products are a haunting memory for Elaine Robinson. “I was hanging outside my bedroom window gasping for air.” She blames vaping for putting her in the hospital and causing her to depend on oxygen tanks to breathe.

“I just kept saying over and over, ‘please don’t let me die. Please don’t let me die,'” Robinson said. “The vaping is killing people, and I almost died.”

Now, Conklin and his team are trying to figure out the killer component in in e-cigarettes. “Many of these flavors have been approved for ingestion in foods everyone knows these things cinnamon, vanilla it’s fine,” he says. “But they’ve never been tested for toxicity when heated, so there’s a big concern that we’re putting things in our lungs that we don’t know what they’re going to do.”

The study is animal-based, using hundreds of mice. U of L officials would not let us see them in the trial, though Conklin explained the process that uses a high-tech delivery system. “What we have here is a cigarette smoking robot. It will then puff using these pumps and deliver a smoke to the chamber.”

The mice are in the chamber. From four second puff creates a plum of smoke that lasts about 30 seconds. There’s a puff every 30 seconds for 9 minutes and the cycle repeats over the course of six hours.

Conklin’s team is six years into a 10-year, $35 million grant funded mostly by the Food and Drug Administration. And he says they’ve found the most common elements in e-cigarettes. Two of them, propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin, can produce a toxic chemical. “Formaldehyde, acetaldehyde and one very toxic compound, acrolein — when they’re heating these things that are normally benign, they start to volatilize.”

Dr. Rachel Keith is heading up the human end of the e-cigarette study at U of L. “We can look at how vaping is different from people who have never used or how vaping is different for people who use more traditional products.”

She says just like in mice, people who vape tend to have blood vessel dysfunction. “We know the heart and lung are interconnected, and that connection and the blood vessels are the highway. So it’s all tied to together and there are pieces of that puzzle that we need to understand.”

The problem with the research is that science can’t keep up with e-cigarettes. Last month, a ban on flavored vape products took effect, as use skyrockets among teens. But a loophole allowed disposable cartridges with the same impact onto store shelves.

“So research jumped to JUUL, when we saw that’s where adolescents were going, but now were all studying JUUL but the market has changed again already,” Keith says.

As science continues searching for solutions, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 2,800 people have been hospitalized due to e-cigarettes in all 50 states.

Robinson shares her story as a cautionary tale.

“This is so dangerous. So freaking dangerous,” robinson said. “Please stop.”

Gil Corsey/WDRB