Research Spotlight: Jessica Oakes, Ph.D.

Jessica Oakes, Ph.D., has been interested in the health effects of cigarettes since she was young, when she saw first-hand how her grandfather's smoking led him to suffer chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and heart problems. "When my grandparents started smoking, they didn't know cigarettes could lead to lung disease," she says. Now with a Senior Research Training Fellowship grant from the American Lung Association, Dr. Oakes is studying the health effects of e-cigarettes.

"We don't yet know what the health consequences are of smoking e-cigarettes," says Dr. Oakes, a University of California Presidential Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley. "People have the notion that they are safer than regular cigarettes, but there is no science behind that. It is giving people a false sense of security. Kids are using them, and adults are using them continuously without breaks in between. We need to know if they really are safe or not."

Dr. Oakes, a mechanical engineer, is using computer tools to predict where e-cigarette particles collect in the lungs. Using CT images of the lungs, she is building a 3-D model of the airways, and using a computer to run simulations of airflow in the lungs to determine where the particles are deposited. "If they are deposited deep into the airways, the chemicals from e-cigarettes can get into the bloodstream and circulate to other parts of the body, such as the liver and brain," she explains. "They can also create inflammatory responses that result in lung diseases."

She will be looking at the airways of a large range of patients, to understand the differences in e-cigarette smoking between men and women, and people of various ages, including children.

"I am hoping this information can be used in future experimental studies that aim to relate the concentration of deposited e-cigarette particles to their toxicity," she says. "Once we have more information on the health effects of e-cigarettes, it can be used to make decisions about regulating e-cigarette use."

The American Lung Association grant will allow Dr. Oakes to lead her own project, and bring her a step closer to her goal of becoming a faculty member at a leading research university.

Page last updated: November 17, 2022

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