To complement the wide range of information on the potential dangers of vaping, the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine has developed a new learning module for high school classrooms that encourages students to directly test the effects of e-cigarette vapor on living cells.
“We created this module in direct response to the vaping epidemic spreading among teens and children,” said Dr. Donna Cassidy-Hanley, senior research associate and program manager of the Advancing Secondary Science Education Through Tetrahymena (ASSET) program, which developed the module. The program is funded by the National Institutes of Health.
On Dec. 5, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 48 deaths and 2,291 hospitalizations in the U.S. due to electronic cigarette use and associated lung injuries. A CDC survey also found that e-cigarettes were the most commonly used tobacco product among high school and middle school students. In 2019, 28% of teens and 11% percent of middle schoolers reported using e-cigarettes in the past 30 days.
The kit – which ASSET prepares and sends to teachers at no cost – contains small quantities of e-cigarette vapor condensate, unsmoked vape juice and water that has been vaporized and re-condensed in a clean e-cigarette. Students then apply these materials to a single-celled ciliated protozoan called Tetrahymena, also provided by ASSET, comparing the effect of each additive on cell viability, motility and overall shape.
Tetrahymena is a model organism used in research on health and disease-related topics. Substances that affect Tetrahymena’s basic cell functions may also interfere with similar human cell functions, such as human cilia that help move harmful inhaled material out of the lungs.
“It doesn’t look much like a human [cell], but its basic cell processes are very much like those of human cells,” said Cassidy-Hanley.
The kit also includes an expanded teacher guide that provides basic information about vaping; an introduction to human cilia; additional information on the effects of nicotine on the human body; and a brief summary of studies regarding the effects of e-cigarette vapor on cultured human lung cells. These tools help to facilitate comparison of the students’ Tetrahymena results with effects observed in human cells.
“Human lung cells grown in tissue culture are commonly used to study the effects of e-cigarette vapor on living cells in research labs, but that’s obviously not possible in a classroom,” said Cassidy-Hanley. “This is a useful, instructive alternative that allows students to experimentally explore key biological concepts as well as the damaging effects of vapor.”
Within hours of announcing the module on a teacher listserv, a half-dozen teachers reached out to Cassidy-Hanley to reserve a kit for their classroom. The module is already scheduled for use by teachers at 18 schools in seven states, including eight high schools across New York state.
ASSET is also developing a middle- and elementary-school version of the e-cigarette vapor module that will be available early this spring.
“There’s a lot of really good educational material available addressing the health issues associated with vaping, especially among children,” Cassidy-Hanley said. “Our module is unique in that in addition to supplying basic information about vaping, it provides a dramatic and impactful demonstration of the real-life effects of e-cigarette vapor on living cells. Normal, healthy Tetrahymena are constantly in motion, but when the e-cigarette vapor is added, the cells quickly stop swimming and fall to the bottom of the drop, unable to move.”
ASSET developed the module with funding from the NIH Science Education Partnership Awards (SEPA) program to Dr. Theodore Clark, chair of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology. With SEPA support, the ASSET team has developed many other science modules for classrooms at all levels, including a module addressing the effects of cigarette smoke and alcohol on living cells.
A 2018 NIH survey found that only 25% of high school sophomores knew there was nicotine in e-cigarette vapor. Said Cassidy-Hanley: “Education is critical for combating the vaping epidemic among teens and children. Many young people believe that e-cigarette vapor is just water or only contains flavorings. Our goal is to dispel commonly held myths about vaping in a way that students won’t quickly forget.”
Melanie Greaver Cordova is managing editor at the College of Veterinary Medicine.