Vaping While Pregnant May Cause Craniofacial Birth Defects

Summary: According to researchers, the use of e-cigarettes during pregnancy may result in facial and oral cavity defects in offspring.

Source: VCU.

Using e-cigarettes during pregnancy could cause birth defects of the oral cavity and face, according to a recent Virginia Commonwealth University study.

The findings, published in the journal PLOS in late September, add to growing scientific evidence suggesting that e-cigarettes pose health risks despite being widely considered a safer alternative to tobacco cigarettes.

Researchers in the Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences and the Department of Biomedical Engineering in the School of Engineering are the first to investigate whether e-cigarettes could be linked to the development of craniofacial birth defects, said principal investigator Amanda Dickinson, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Biology. The e-cigarettes study is part of a series of projects by multiple institutions funded with a $2 million grant from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, part of the National Institutes of Health.

“We aim to educate the public about the dangers of vaping and compel policymakers to impose tighter regulations, such as warning labels,” Dickinson said.

Building evidence

To simulate what happens to fetuses when e-cigarettes are used during pregnancy, the researchers exposed frog embryos and samples of mammalian neural crest cells to saline infused with e-cigarette vapor.

Frogs, like other vertebrates, are similar to humans embryonically, Dickinson said. In both species, the same processes and genes govern major developmental events, such as craniofacial development.

“This means that if a chemical perturbs a frog embryo, it’s likely to do the same thing to a human embryo,” she said.

Mammalian neural crest cells are also ideal models because they have a key role in embryonic facial development.

Damage to these cells in utero can cause craniofacial birth defects, said co-investigator René Olivares-Navarrete, D.D.S., Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering.

“Neural crest cells are extremely important in the development of craniofacial structures because they can form many different tissues like bones, cartilage, skin, teeth and glands,” Olivares-Navarrete said.

To simulate vaping, Suraj Kandalam, a biomedical engineering graduate student in Olivares-Navarrete’s lab, revamped the design of a pump customized to mimic smoking tobacco cigarettes.

E-cigarettes are connected to the pump, which “inhales” the vapor. Vapor is created when e-liquids — blends of nicotine, propylene, glycol, vegetable glycerin and various flavoring compounds — are heated within e-cigarettes during inhalation. The vapor is then collected in a syringe before it is infused into saline.

Allyson Kennedy, Ph.D., a graduate of VCU’s Integrative Life Sciences program, exposed the frog embryos to the saline-vapor mixture and recorded facial measurements and any incidents of cleft palates the embryos developed. Members of Olivares-Navarrete’s lab tested the effects of the mixture on the viability and function of neural crest cells.

The results were surprising and strongly suggested using e-cigarettes could lead to birth defects, Dickinson said. In experimental trials for specific e-liquid types, all the frog embryos developed cleft palates.

“We observed that very complex e-liquids that mix flavors, such as berries and crème and other food-related flavorings, may have the most dramatic effect on the face,” Dickinson said.

All the frog embryos exposed to one particular e-liquid developed clefts with varying degrees of severity. The researchers have elected not to reveal the specific names of the e-liquids, or the companies that produce them, at this time. In trials with another flavor that could be described as “nutty,” roughly 75 percent of the frog embryos developed clefts. When exposed to various other flavors, the frog embryos developed faces that were smaller than average, Dickinson added.

Image shows a pregnant woman surrounded by smoke.
VCU researchers are investigating the impact vaping while pregnant could have on facial image is adapted from the VCU news release.

The capacity of the neural crest cells to produce associated tissues was also greatly diminished, Olivares-Navarrete said.

Researchers experimented with the same e-liquids without nicotine and found that the cells and frog embryos were still dramatically affected even when nicotine was absent.

Further studies

Olivares-Navarrete plans to publish findings on mouse models early next year. Both he and Dickinson are seeking additional funding for work that would lead to further studies.

“Next, we’ll focus on explaining the mechanisms behind the cleft palates,” Dickinson said. “We want to answer how the environmental stimulus of vaping affects changes in the genes that are critical for facial development.”

The team wants to collaborate with a chemist to help determine exactly which chemicals in e-liquids could interact with genes in utero to cause cleft palates.

“Understanding if there is one or hundreds of molecules in e-cigarette vapor that negatively affect craniofacial development is a difficult task because the number of commercially available e-liquids is in the thousands.” Olivares-Navarrete said. “But finding these answers would give us a better understanding of the possible adverse effects of e-cigarettes.”

About this neuroscience research article

Source: Leah Small – VCU
Publisher: Organized by
Image Source: image is adapted from the VCU news release.
Original Research: Full open access research for “E-cigarette aerosol exposure can cause craniofacial defects in Xenopus laevis embryos and mammalian neural crest cells” by Allyson E. Kennedy, Suraj Kandalam, Rene Olivares-Navarrete, and Amanda J. G. Dickinson in PLOS ONE. Published online September 28 2017 doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0185729

Cite This Article

[cbtabs][cbtab title=”MLA”]VCU “Vaping While Pregnant May Cause Craniofacial Birth Defects.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 16 November 2017.
<>.[/cbtab][cbtab title=”APA”]VCU (2017, November 16). Vaping While Pregnant May Cause Craniofacial Birth Defects. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved November 16, 2017 from[/cbtab][cbtab title=”Chicago”]VCU “Vaping While Pregnant May Cause Craniofacial Birth Defects.” (accessed November 16, 2017).[/cbtab][/cbtabs]


E-cigarette aerosol exposure can cause craniofacial defects in Xenopus laevis embryos and mammalian neural crest cells

Since electronic cigarette (ECIG) introduction to American markets in 2007, vaping has surged in popularity. Many, including women of reproductive age, also believe that ECIG use is safer than traditional tobacco cigarettes and is not hazardous when pregnant. However, there are few studies investigating the effects of ECIG exposure on the developing embryo and nothing is known about potential effects on craniofacial development. Therefore, we have tested the effects of several aerosolized e-cigarette liquids (e-cigAM) in an in vivo craniofacial model, Xenopus laevis, as well as a mammalian neural crest cell line. Results demonstrate that e-cigAM exposure during embryonic development induces a variety of defects, including median facial clefts and midface hypoplasia in two of e-cigAMs tested e-cigAMs. Detailed quantitative analyses of the facial morphology revealed that nicotine is not the main factor in inducing craniofacial defects, but can exacerbate the effects of the other e-liquid components. Additionally, while two different e-cigAMs can have very similar consequences on facial appearances, there are subtle differences that could be due to the differences in e-cigAM components. Further assessment of embryos exposed to these particular e-cigAMs revealed cranial cartilage and muscle defects and a reduction in the blood supply to the face. Finally, the expression of markers for vascular and cartilage differentiation was reduced in a mammalian neural crest cell line corroborating the in vivo effects. Our work is the first to show that ECIG use could pose a potential hazard to the developing embryo and cause craniofacial birth defects. This emphasizes the need for more testing and regulation of this new popular product.

“E-cigarette aerosol exposure can cause craniofacial defects in Xenopus laevis embryos and mammalian neural crest cells” by Allyson E. Kennedy, Suraj Kandalam, Rene Olivares-Navarrete, and Amanda J. G. Dickinson in PLOS ONE. Published online September 28 2017 doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0185729

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