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Chemical Profiling of E-Cigarette Products to Address Safety and Potential Repositioning as Antibiotic Delivery Devices

PhD project title

Chemical Profiling of E-Cigarette Products to Address Safety and Potential Repositioning as Antibiotic Delivery Devices

Outline description, including interdisciplinary, intersectoral and international dimensions (300 words max)

The dangers of tobacco smoking are well known, and public health bodies have suggested using e-cigarettes a safer alternative. This had led to a rapid increase from 7 million in 2001 to 41 million people worldwide in 2018 – with a worrying increase in use by under-18s. However, the evidence for e-cigarette safety is poor and does not take account of the wide range of products, including flavours aimed at young people. This project will explore the contents of e-cigarettes to risk assess their ingredients and explore how they could be repositioned as drug delivery devices for respiratory infections with a focus on high-risk Cystic Fibrosis pathogens. This project will utilise an interdisciplinary approach which combines the analytical chemistry and microbiology expertise of the supervisory team. Mass spectrometry will be used to analyse the chemical contents of e-cigarette liquids from UK and international markets (Europe/US/Asia) to profile compounds which are unique shared with tobacco products and to determine their effect on key respiratory pathogens. There will be a focus on carrier solvents in e-cigarettes and the behaviour of chemical constituents related to the different thermal properties of heating filaments. The antibiotic susceptibility of key respiratory pathogens before and after exposure to e-cigarette/tobacco smoke will be measured to determine potential for indirect harm. Although there is potential for harm from e-cigarettes, they do represent a considerable engineering achievement and could be repositioned as an alternative antibiotic delivery device for treatment of respiratory infections, particularly in CF patients. This potential will be explored through an intersectoral study with the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust (BHSCT) whereby respiratory pathogens will be collected by the Fellow from CF patient specimens and used in in vitro experiments where they are subjected to nebulised antibiotics from adapted e-cigarette devices to measure effectiveness against routine administration.

Health issues associated with tobacco smoking are a global issue, seeing a particular rise in developing countries. This project would address important questions around e-cigarette safety which are emerging, internationally, as a public health-endorsed alternative to tobacco smoking. The findings of this project would be of interest to an international audience and would be presented at international respiratory health conferences and published in international respiratory and public health journals.

Key words/descriptors

e-cigarettes / analytical chemistry / microbiology / mass spectrometry / respiratory health / antibiotics

Fit to CITI-GENS theme(s)

  • Information Technology, - project will utilise multi-omic technologies and integrate using machine learning algorithms.
  • Advanced Manufacturing, - project will adapt existing e-cigarette devices to allow delivery of antibiotics for targeted respiratory infections and open new manufacturing opportunities.
  • Life Sciences, - project will address important questions outstanding regarding the safety of e-cigarettes related to respiratory health.

Supervisor Information

First Supervisor: Simon Cameron                                                                       School: School of Biological Sciences

Second Supervisor: Deirdre Gilpin                                                                     School: School of Pharmacy

Third Supervisor: Damien Downey                                                                    Company: Belfast Health and Social Care Trust

Name of non-HEI partner(s)

Belfast Health and Social Care Trust – Dr Damien Downey

Contribution of non-HEI partner(s) to the project:


The non-HEI partner (Belfast NHS Healthcare Trust represented by Dr Damien Downey) will provide clinical input into the Fellow’s research project and provide access to respiratory samples from clinical microbiology facilities. It is envisaged that the Fellow will complete a placement with the partner in order to collect these samples at their microbiology facilities in Belfast where they will be provided all necessary training.


The non-academic supervisor for this project is based at the Belfast HSCT and will provide clinical support to the project. They will join the supervisory meetings at least three times a year and provide and support through clinical advice and access to samples through their NHS position. They will also provide a placement to the student within the Belfast HSCT for at least one month over the three years of the project. Although Dr Damien Downey has a part-time Clinical Senior Lecturer position at QUB, their role in this project will be through their non-academic position as a Respiratory Consultant within the Belfast HSCT.


Research centre / School

Institute for Global Food Security / School of Biological Sciences / School of Pharmacy

Subject area

Analytical chemistry