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Pot and tobacco: How much damage can a lung cell take?

HSN researchers trying to pinpoint when smoke damages cells beyond repair

A new machine at Health Sciences North is lighting up to help researchers learn more about lung exposure to cigarette and marijuana smoke.

Dr. Leslie Sutherland, a researcher with the hospital’s Advanced Medical Research Institute of Canada (AMRIC), is using the machine to expose lung cells – grown in a lab setting – to small amounts of marijuana and cigarette smoke.

“With my research on tobacco smoke, I’m trying to determine the absolute earliest possible moment cigarette smoke exposure alters cells from the regular development and veers them off on a path of becoming cancerous,” Sutherland said in a press release. “I also want to determine what the trigger is for this process and if it’s universal or unique to someone’s genetic makeup. This would have profound implications, in terms of predicting, preventing, and treating lung cancer.”

The machine “smokes” the equivalent of one cigarette a week, that is then diluted down to 1/200th its regular strength.

The lung cells are then analyzed to determine at what level of exposure they are altered from their regular healthy development to mutating into cancerous cells.

For her research on marijuna smoke, the machine takes in the equivalent of three joints, and the smoke is then diluted to 1/10,000th of its regular strength.

“We tried diluting the marijuana smoke down to 1/200th of its regular strength, but the cells were completely destroyed by the smoke within 16 hours,” Sutherland said. “So while they won’t become cancerous because they’re dead, we don’t know what that’s doing to the body at the molecular level.”

She added there are no reliable studies on the effects of long-term exposure to marijuana smoke.

“We just don’t know what those effects are, and with medical marijuana for medicinal use now being permitted and regulated, we need to give physicians as much information as we can so that they can have an informed discussion with their patients about whether medical marijuana is an effective treatment option,” Sutherland said.

Sutherland plans to compare her findings on lab-grown cells to ongoing lung cancer research she has done with patients at the North East Cancer Centre.

The Northern Cancer Foundation and the Ontario Lung Association’s Ontario Thoracic Society have funded her research.

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