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Can vaping cause emphysema?

A recent study investigated the effects of vaping on lung cells.

The debate surrounding the negative health effects of e-cigarettes is becoming ever more polarised. Scientists at the new University North Caroline School of Medicine, led by Rob Tarran, have recently carried out a study examining the effects of ‘’vaping’’ on the cellular responses within the human lung.

This study, which was published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, discovered that within the lungs of vapers an elevated level of protease enzymes was found – also seen in smokers with emphysema. These protease enzymes essentially ‘chew’ away the proteins in the lung tissue.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that during 2014, approximately 9 million adults in the U.S alone were vaping regularly, with 30 million having tried vaping. The authors of this study also highlight that vaping this frequently has been happening for less than 10 years, therefore the long-term health effects of vaping remain unclear.

During this study, scientists measured three key protease enzymes within the lung fluid of 41 individuals, which included non-smokers, smokers, and vapers. Within the lung, immune cells are responsible for secreting these protease enzymes and will secrete higher levels of these enzymes in response to cigarette smoke. If these cells are overactive over a long period of time, such as during chronic smoking, these enzymes damage the small and delicate air sacs within the lungs that facilitate breathing.  This type of damage in smokers is believed to be the cause of emphysema, which is a chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which means these individuals experience shortness of breath that becomes more severe with time and there is no cure.

The researchers found that the levels of these protease enzymes were high in both smokers and vapers, but not high in non-smokers. The key finding of this study is that vaping, similar to smoking, may lead to emphysema. Scientists also found evidence to suggest that it is the nicotine in the vaping liquid that causes the elevation of these protease enzymes.

Vaping is considered by most to be a safe alternative to cigarette smoking, which is the burning of tobacco leaves that creates toxic and cancer-causing by-products. Some researchers have even recommended that smokers should make the switch to vaping as soon as possible. However, without the long-term data, many remain concerned about their safety and the possible gateway phenomenon that e-cigarettes might provide.

The researchers of this recent study note that their findings are not the first to warn the public of the potential adverse effects of vaping. Further research and evidence is needed before a decision can be made regarding the use or cessation of vaping within this new generation of vapers.


Written by Jade Marie Evans, MPharm



UNC Health Care and UNC School of Medicine. 2019. Scientists Show How Vaping Induces Reactions in Lungs that Can Lead to Disease. [Online].[29 September 2019]. Available from:

Tarran, R et al. 2019. Chronic E-Cigarette Use Increases Neutrophil Elastase and Matrix Metalloprotease Levels in the Lung. [Online]. [29 September 2019]. Available from:

Image by Ethan Parsa from Pixabay

Jade Evans MPharm
Jade Evans MPharm
Jade obtained her Master of Pharmacy degree from Cardiff University, UK in 2015 and then went on to work as a Pharmacist within the NHS, across both the hospital and community sectors. In 2017, she began her work for the medical news bulletin and moved to Perth, Australia. She is now working at Perth Children’s Hospital working in the Anaesthetic and Pain Management Research Group.


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