Three secondary school students won first place in the regional stage of Jugend Forscht (Youth Researches), the renowned European science competition,
with a project on the effects of flavourings in e-cigarettes.

In October 2023, Sofía Capello, Zoe Augspach and Milagros Ruiz Lodwig began to shape their project in the laboratories of the Buenos Aires Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IBioBA, CONICET-Max Planck. Under the guidance of Dr. Julieta Campi, a scientist in the field of neurobiology, they prepared to take part in the German competition Jugend Forscht (Youth Researches), one of the most important scientific competitions for secondary school students in Europe. In February, they travelled to Hamburg to take part in the first regional round of the competition, and their project was awarded first place. In April they will take part in the provincial stage of the competition.

With their project, entitled “E-cigarettes: Does their effect on the lungs depend on taste?”, they set out to investigate the effect of the different flavourings used in e-cigarettes on lung cells. E-cigarettes are presented as a “healthier” alternative to conventional cigarettes. E-cigarettes are used by 5% of the German population and are also widely used among young people. However, recent studies show that they are not as harmless as previously thought: the flavourings, when inhaled, have adverse health effects, causing cell death in lung tissue and a malfunctioning of the lung’s immune system.

There are several types of flavourings that differ from each other in their chemical compositions. In this line, they hypothesised that flavoured E-liquids in a gaseous state cause more oxidative stress and an inflammatory response, both indicators of cell damage, and that some flavours are more harmful than others. To test this, they used a lung epithelium line in a gaseous medium with E-liquids of four different flavours. They measured the inflammatory response and looked under a microscope at morphological changes in the cells, indicating cell damage or death.

“The project meant a lot to me”, said Zoe Augspach. “I’ve always been passionate about research, but it was through this experience that I was able to really understand and live the day-to-day life of a researcher: I learned a lot, from how a lab works, to using different instruments and analyzing data. It was very motivating, not only because of the project itself, but also because of the incredible working atmosphere at IBioBA, it was really an incredible experience and I am very grateful to have been able to participate in this”, added the student.

Referring to the experience of the competition, Sofía Capello said that it was something totally new: “It was a very important experience for our personal lives as well as for our professional experience. We learned how to make a project, present it and have it judged by people who know more about the subject. We worked as a team and learned a lot about the world of science and research, we were able to be inside as if we were researchers, an extremely valuable experience and opportunity”.

The evaluators, in their feedback, stated that the participants “developed a complex procedure to answer a current and relevant question and have come to a solid conclusion: stay away from donut and vanilla flavours when vaping, as delicious as that sounds. May their results help to move flavoured liquids from the grey zone to the ban zone in Argentina”.

Hearing that their project had won first place “was like the icing on the cake”, said Milagros Ruiz Lodwig. “It was like confirming that everything we had done was being recognized and we were very happy. Then we started to think about how to go back to the next round, how to continue the project, what things we want to continue researching… A lot of things that we had been thinking about and became more real with the possibility of returning to the second stage in April”, she adds.

The preparation of student groups by IBioBA researchers to participate in the competitions began in 2016 and since then they have won third place in the Frankfurt regional competition (2017), first place in the Düsseldorf regional competition (2018), second place in the Hessen-Mitte regional competition (2019), third place in the Giessen regional competition (2020) and second place in the Hamburg provincial competition (2023).

This activity is carried out within the framework of an agreement signed in 2012 between the German Pestalozzi School and IBioBA, and represents one of the pillars of the Institute, which seeks to complement its basic research work with actions aimed at science communication and the promotion of scientific vocations.