SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – Health officials are now investigating around 450 cases of severe lung disease and at least five deaths related to vaping in 33 states but now doctors at the University of Utah may have discovered exactly what’s causing the illnesses.

In a study just published in the New England Journal of Medicine, U of U Associate Professor and Critical Care Pulmonologist Dr. Scott Aberegg says lipid-laden macrophages were present in the lungs of all 10 patients he studied.

The rare immune cells are typically only found when patients accidentally breathe in mineral oil or castor oil, so their presence could indicate that oils in the vaping liquid are the culprit.

“The best inference right now is that some oil or oil-like material might be being deposited into the lungs of people who are vaping a variety of substances,” Dr. Aberegg explained. “The immune cells, the macrophages, are trying to clean up that material and in the process of that clean up it’s stimulating the immune system and causing people to feel and be very very ill much like as if they had a severe case of influenza.”

The researchers hope this is the first step to eliminating the oil substance from vaping products and preventing future cases. 

“I have a bigger hope and that bigger hope is that once we identify what’s causing these illnesses, we will eliminate that substance entirely from vaping products so we don’t have any more of these illnesses again,” Dr. Aberegg said Monday. “I think that we may find 10 years from now that this was an illness that lasted only several months in 2019.”

The Utah Department of Health is investigating 28 vaping related illnesses here in our state including one so severe that the patient’s family says doctors put him in a medically induced coma.