When Noah Minskoff's mother died of lung cancer in 2007, e-cigarettes were just entering the US market.
Minskoff, who had just started medical school in Utah, wondered whether the devices might have saved his mother's life by helping her quit smoking. Later, he sent some samples to his boyhood friend Nathan Terry, a mechanical engineer, and asked for his opinion.
Terry, who was working in Germany for the French industrial firm Areva, took apart the products to see how they were made.
What he found disturbed him: at the heart of the devices were heater wires of unknown quality wrapped around bundles of glass fibres and surrounded by steel wool, silicon, plastic, tape and adhesives.
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Red flags everywhere
Wires between the heater, circuit board and batteries were connected with lead solder and also housed in tape and plastic. Everything was close to the heat source, meaning consumers were at risk of inhaling fibre and metal particles as well as toxic fumes from hot plastic and lead.
"There were red flags everywhere," Terry said.
Still, he liked the concept and decided to design a version of his own, avoiding the use of fibreglass, plastic and solder and sourcing his materials entirely in the United States.
In 2009 he reunited with Minskoff in California and formed a company, Thermo-Essence Technologies, to sell the product called Thermovape.
At around $300/R3 000 apiece, the e-cigarette serves a niche market, albeit one with a loyal following among medical marijuana patients and smokers looking for a high-end e-cigarette. As many as 30 000 have been sold.
Measured doses of nicotine
But what began as a quest to develop a better e-smoke has broadened into an ambitious effort to design a new medical device: an inhaler that delivers measured doses of nicotine to help people quit smoking.
Watch the e-cigarette in action
The technology could also eventually be used as an abuse-resistant delivery device for other drugs, including opioid painkillers.
If successful, the inhaler could become the first new smoking-cessation product to emerge from the e-cigarette field and would compete with products such as GlaxoSmithKline Plc's nicotine gum and Pfizer Inc's antismoking drug, Chantix (Champix in SA).
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