“Horrific” experiments on pregnant mice which are forced to breathe in e-cig flavours have been widely condemned by animal rights campaigners.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently awarded biomedical research organisation The Lundquist Institute £1.76m ($2.3m) to research whether vaping while pregnant increases the risk of children having asthma.
Research leader Dr Virender Rehan hopes the findings could change US laws around vaping as the number of youngsters using e-cigarettes has “increased alarmingly” to millions across the world.
But the method for testing the pregnant mice – which will be regularly forced into gas tubes for up to two years – has drawn harsh criticism, especially from animal rights group PETA.
Dr Andreas Stucki worked for the tobacco company Philip Morris International Inc. before returning to research and now is a biomedical scientist for PETA US.
He claimed the research money was being "wasted" on ineffective animal tests that will produce findings with limited relevance to humans.
Dr Stucki claims: "In general I believe animal testing is unnecessary and especially in regards to vaping.
"There was a nicotine addiction study that had to be stopped two years ago because four monkeys died.
"There are so many humans at the moment that either continue to smoke, they switch to vaping, they are dual users, they are completely both – they are the perfect subjects to perform a study on.
"There are endless possibilities that you can use human subjects for and we do not have the natural disadvantage of using animals."
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He claims: "It's a waste of money and it could be used in better ways.
"I think animal research holds back science… It is already if you look at drug development – it's 96% of all the drugs that are tested as safe and effective for animals that are not getting into the market.
"We can really treat every disease in a mouse and it's not translating to humans."
Asked why researchers don't use humans more, he claims: "It's only speculation but it requires more planning, it requires more ethical committees, I guess it's hard to overcome, and others are doing it because they already have the animal testing equipment and the knowledge.
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"Especially in inhalation toxicology, animal testing is very very questionable, just imagine, A, you put them in a tube where they cannot move – already this is a lot of stress for a rat, then they have to inhale four to six hours of something which is potentially toxic, five to seven times a week, for up to two years in a study. It's pretty horrific."
Studies have shown women who smoke during pregnancy increase the risk of their children having asthma – and that those children can pass it on to their own children even if they are non-smokers.
Dr Virender Rehan is to lead a team at The Lundquist Institute to use pregnant mice to investigate whether this also happens with e-cigarettes, which are particularly popular among young people.
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He claims: “There has been an erroneous perception that vaping is relatively safe when compared to smoking.
“These studies will advance our knowledge on the transgenerational risk of vaping and will also help inform regulatory policies concerning exposure to e-cig nicotine and flavoring from vaping.”
The research will also assess the effects of nicotine and e-cigarette flavorings on "germ cells" – precursors to sperm and egg cells – in growing embryos in the womb.
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The Lundquist Institute’s CEO Dr David Meyer said: “Dr Rehan is a nationally respected leader in studying the respiratory system.
“His work investigating the multi-generational effects of vaping and discovering significant insights on asthma help fulfill The Lundquist Institute’s mission of leading healthcare innovation.”
Public Health expert Professor Linda Bauld, of Cancer Research UK, who is not involved in the study, claims vaping is "significantly less harmful" than smoking.
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Commenting on a spate of deaths in the US linked with vaping last year, she claims: "It's very clear that the EVALI (E-cigarette, or Vaping product use Associated Lung Injury) outbreak was linked to contaminated cannabis oil, contaminated with thickening oil which contained vitamin E.
"It was a bit like an E-coli outbreak for food.
"It's still significantly less harmful than smoking, there's very little doubt about that.
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"Where there may be harms is nicotine is addictive and the flavourings – many were designed for food products, not to be inhaled so there may well be respiratory or cardio-vascular effects."
Asked if she had concerns animal welfare issues could put smokers off switching to e-cigarettes, she claims: "We are very concerned about pregnant women vaping.
"We use animal models for almost everything in modern medicine so vaping isn't any different.
"In terms of vaping studies, the most common animal model is a rodent.
"In most of modern medicine we use animal models; I would agree in a perfect world we would use computer models."
The Lundquist Institute, formerly the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute, has over 100 principal investigators working on more than 600 research studies and is responsible for innovations including the first FDA-approved treatment for sickle cell disease in 20 years.
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