Graduate Student Awarded NIH Fellowship to Study Electronic Cigarettes

UC Riverside’s Rachel Behar will study the effects of electronic cigarette aerosols on cell health

Photo shows Rachel Behar.

Rachel Behar is a third-year student in the Cell Molecular and Development Biology graduate program at UC Riverside.Photo courtesy of R. Behar, UC Riverside.

By Philip Vieira

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Ever since e-cigarettes hit the market in 2004, they have been advertised as an aid for cigarette smoking cessation. The aerosols produced by e-cigarettes, however, have yet to be screened for potential health risks.

Now, a University of California, Riverside graduate student has received a National Institutes of Health (NIH) fellowship of more than $90,000 to study the cytotoxic effects — effects that are toxic to the body’s cells — of e-cigarette use. The three-year competitive award will cover tuition and living expenses for the remainder of her tenure in graduate school.

“I will be studying aerosols produced by electronic cigarettes, using refill fluids,” said Rachel Behar, the recipient of the NIH Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award. “I will isolate chemicals in the most cytotoxic aerosols and test them on human embryonic stem cells to mimic exposure during early stages of development.”

Specifically, Behar, who is currently a third-year student in the Cell Molecular and Development Biology graduate program, will collect a variety of refill fluids representing different flavoring agents such as sweet, fruity, and even savory. She will then heat these fluids to generate aerosols that can be applied to different cell cultures to test their cytotoxic effects.

“A lot of people are switching to e-cigarettes as smoking cessation devices, “ said Prue Talbot, the director of the UCR Stem Cell Center and Behar’s advisor. “A significant percentage of pregnant women are interested in trying these devices as alternatives to cigarette smoking.”

Behar has a strong interest in learning the effects of e-cigarette use on early prenatal development.  As a result, she will also study e-cigarette aerosols on adult lung cell lines and compare their effects with early stages of human development, the ultimate goal being to make e-cigarettes more effective smoking cessation devices. “I have had an interest in smoking cessation and tobacco-related disease as far back as I can remember,” she said.

Behar is a member of the UCR Chancellor’s Smoke/Tobacco-Free Policy Implementation Student Subcommittee and was a member of UC Irvine’s Student Task-force Advocating Reducing Tobacco as an undergraduate student.

This is the fourth award Behar has received for doing e-cigarette research. She began graduate school with the two-year Cornelius Hopper Award, and has twice received the UCR Graduate Researcher Mentorship Program award.

Behar, who is Hispanic, is the first in her family to attend college.  She will receive help from several undergraduate research assistants in the new research project, including Aladino Razo (a UCR Minority Access to Research Careers undergraduate member), Jisoo Kim, and Michael Dang.

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