Alumni News: Matt Springer, PhD

Advocacy has placed Springer in the center of the e-cigarette debate

By Nadine Taylor-Barnes

July 10, 2019

As San Francisco becomes the first major city in the nation to ban the sale of e-cigarettes in early 2020, pending approval from the Food and Drug Administration, one Stanford biosciences alumnus has found himself in the middle of the national debate. For Matt Springer, PhD, 1992, a self-described “lab rat” who prefers a lower profile doing cardiovascular research, his work is suddenly taking center stage.

What changed everything? Advocacy.

“Advocacy is a scientist’s responsibility,” said Springer, who completed his graduate work and postdoctoral fellowship in biological sciences, cell biology/biochemistry, and molecular pharmacology at Stanford, followed by a senior scientist position until 2003. “We have to tell people what we have discovered – especially when it relates to health matters.”  

When asked why, Springer explained, “Because people mistake the absence of evidence of harm as evidence of absence of harm. We have to bring these issues to the public’s consciousness so that our findings can immediately impact public health decisions. It is not enough to publish our research in scientific journals, because the general public will not necessarily see that work for years to come.”

Springer is doing just that. Since 2016, he has been speaking out about the harmful effects of secondhand smoke – from both tobacco and cannabis -- and how the smoke from any burning plant is toxic to the cardiovascular system. “It can lead to long-term damage to blood vessels leading to chronic vascular dysfunction.  This has become especially important with regard to our marijuana results, in which we have reported potentially harmful effects from secondhand marijuana smoke, which many people have assumed to be harmless.”

He admitted that scientists may not always know the actual mechanism that makes this smoke detrimental, but they can see its detrimental effects – such as the inability of a person’s arteries to function properly and the duration of effect. Repeated exposure could do long-term damage to blood vessels, potentially leading to chronic vascular dysfunction.

Since last September, as one of five recipients of a $20 million dollar FDA/NIH grant, Springer is studying the health effects of new e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products at UCSF where he is one of two non-clinical faculty members in the Division of Cardiology. Springer is conducting ground-breaking research into the safety of smokeless products and has many levels of collaboration working with School of Medicine faculty members, Joseph C. Wu MD, PhD, Director of the Stanford Cardiovascular Institute, and Ronglih Liao, PhD, co-director of the Stanford Amyloid Center and professor of Medicine.

“I feel that our work has indeed made a difference,” he said. “We have started a dialogue among people and they are asking questions; they are thinking about these issues. We are helping to change the debate.”

To see Springer’s advocacy at work, watch his interview on CBS News.