Mayo Researchers Develop Unique Tool, and Lab, to Study Vaping

Dr. Jon Ebbert and fellow researcher Alexandra Ward found a unique way to learn about the chemical makeup of vape solutions and determine if any are a safe alternative to smoking.

Jon Ebbert, M.D., is sympathetic to the plight of the patients he sees who are struggling with addiction. "I saw a lot of addiction growing up," he tells Rochester Magazine's Steve Lange. "I know the damage it can do."

Dr. Ebbert, a Community Internal Medicine physician and researcher in Mayo Clinic's Nicotine Dependence Center, also understands why it can be so hard for his patients to stop using tobacco despite the negative effects the drug has on their bodies. "I understand that life is complicated. I understand that what drives drug addiction is the innate desire that we all have to escape pain and discomfort. I understand that we all need coping mechanisms," he tells Rochester Magazine.

It's that compassionate, firsthand understanding that's driven Dr. Ebbert and fellow Mayo Clinic researcher Alexandra Ward to learn all they can about the chemical makeup of today's ever-increasing and ever-changing vape solutions. The two also work to discover what patients are inhaling when they use cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) for the treatment of medical conditions — in hopes of figuring out, once and for all, if any are safe to inhale. "Half a million people die in this country every year from cigarettes," he tells the magazine. "I'd love to find something safe to reduce that harm."

And as the magazine reports, he and Ward are giving it all they've got. They've established their own Inhaled Particle Aerosol Lab within Mayo Clinic's Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) Spectroscopy lab to study the chemical make-up of vape, CBD and THC samples in a very unique, Star Wars-esque kind of way: By "force-feeding" today's "next generation of drug delivery devices — e-cigs and vaping pens" into a literal "Cigarette Smoking Machine" (CSM) that looks and sounds like it would fit in a galaxy far, far away. "When it inhales — when the motor-driven pump sucks superheated vapor from the e-cig into a whistling-lips-sized hole in its faceplate — CSM makes an adorable electronic chirping sound, like R2D2 whenever he's reunited with C3PO."

That's a description that no doubt pleased Dr. Ebbert, as Lange notes the good doctor was wearing a pair of Yoda socks on the day of their interview. "We call her BB-Vape," Dr. Ebbert tells the magazine of the Jedi Master Cigarette Smoking Machine.

While Dr. Ebbert would like to find a safe smoking alternative for his patients, what BB-Vape is showing time and time again is that vaping, in particular, remains particularly unsafe. "When you take an e-liquid, and put it in this device and heat it, you develop at least 18 new chemical compounds that didn't exist in the e-liquid," Dr. Ebbert tells Rochester Magazine. "This is a reaction vessel with new chemical species being created, including chemicals like formaldehyde, which can cause cancer. I can't safely recommend any of these products to my patients right now. And I wish I could."

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