The future is here, and it’s a robot that vapes.
Science fiction promised us robots that can do housework, fight wars and recycle our trash, but this may be the weirdest robo-task.
Of course, studying vaping is actually quite important. In Pennsylvania alone, one in four high school students has vaped in the past 30 days.
Much of what’s in the liquid e-cigarette mixes is unknown, and constantly changing. For example, there’s a DIY-eJuice Reddit page with 70,000 members (many in their teens), who share their recipes for flavors ranging from peanut butter to stroopwafel. Even nicotine-free vaping mixtures can feature compounds that damage the lungs.
So, enter the vaping robot.
Researchers at Pitt led by Dr. Kambez Benam, a visiting associate professor of medicine, have created a robotic simulator for the lungs and associated systems. The robot can study how different vaping mixtures impact what a person inhales, and how it contributes to the vapor’s toxicity in the body.
The details about the system’s design were published in the scientific journal iScience this week. The technology is owned by Pneumax, LLC.
“The idea comes from this mystery lung disease that came around about two years ago, where people were going into hospitals and they don’t know exactly what’s happening,” says Benam. “And then they found out they had a vaping history; they were smoking electronic cigarettes. And then the more kind of insight into that came that they were smoking electronic cigarettes that had Vitamin E Acetate and cannabinoid products, like THC, etc.
“So when this happened, we thought, OK, what if we try to develop a system that we can actually predict when there’s a modification or change into an electronic cigarette, to see what happens … Basically, can we get insight into potential toxicity of these products.”
You can’t just play around with adding and subtracting different vape juice combinations and test it on people, so Benam’s team at Pitt built a device that would simulate possible impacts of various e-liquid combinations without needing clinical subjects.
Here’s what they’ve learned so far, according to Benam:
▪ “Don’t assume that if something is safe to take orally or put on the skin, like Vitamin E Acetate, is safe to inhale. It’s not the case.”
▪ “Electronic cigarettes are harmful. They’re not safe.”
▪ “We need to have better ways to understand all these new products that come into market, what potential they have to cause damage to us … particularly people in middle school, high school and younger kids.”
Vaping is being studied across the country. In 2009, President Obama established the Center for Tobacco Products within the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), whose purview was expanded to cover any “electronic nicotine delivery system.” Benam’s robot is supported by funding from the FDA.
That’s not to say that it’s easy for the government to keep up.
“It’s a field that’s evolving, so … it can change almost on a day-to-day basis,” says Benam. “For us as investigators and scientists, we’re interested to understand not just the regulatory aspect, but also the biology, the pathology, the disease aspect of exposure.”
Benam has lived on three continents, and has degrees from Newcastle University and Oxford University in England, and attended Harvard Medical School and the University of Colorado before landing at Pitt.
The robotic system is quite complex, regulating and measuring everything from inhalation and exhalation to the humidity present in the human body.
“It creates fresh vapor from electronic cigarettes, diluted with normal air that you would otherwise have inhaled into the lungs, mimics the rib cage … so your lungs go in and out,” says Benam. “And then at the end of it, it has sensors that can measure what sort of particles have been generated.”
So far, he’s calling the robot HUMITIPAA, which stands for Human Vaping Mimetic Real-Time Particle Analyzer. (It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue like “Vape Bot.”)