Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a medical condition that results in damage to the lungs. Bronchial spasm and excess production of mucus close off airways and make it difficult to breathe. At the same time, the alveoli, or air sacs where oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged, lose their elasticity and become flaccid. There is currently no cure for COPD, only treatments to improve your quality of life and to slow the progression of the disease. In 2011, however, researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) in Boston, MA discovered the presence of stem cells in the lungs. This discovery opened the door to the possibility of new and better COPD treatments, and perhaps even one day, a cure.
Stem Cells 101
Stem cells are cells in the body that share three main characteristics, according to Dr. Catherine Paddock:
- They can renew themselves through cell division.
- Although initially undifferentiated, they can differentiate themselves, or take on the properties of several different structures and tissues, as the need arises.
- They can be transplanted into another organism where they will continue to divide and differentiate.
Stem cells may be obtained from a four to five day old human embryo called a “blastocyst.” These embryos are usually “leftovers” from an in vitro fertilization. Some stem cells also exist in the bodies of adults. They have been found in the brain, blood, skin, and muscles but—with the exception of the liver—rarely in the organs. In the adult body, these cells are dormant and don’t divide unless activated by an event like illness or injury. Stem cells can be used to heal or even regenerate (regrow) damaged tissue.
Stem Cells in the Lung
Until recently, researchers believed that adult lungs didn’t contain any stem cells. Dr. Piero Anversa and his colleagues at BWH turned conventional wisdom on its head when they found evidence of stem cells in 12 adult donor lungs and nine lungs from fetuses that had died a natural death.
These undifferentiated cells were capable of forming different parts of the lungs, including the alveoli and the small airways. When injected into mice with surgically damaged lungs, the stem cells divided to form new lung structures. The tissue that the stem cells created meshed with and supported the mice’s own lung tissues.
COPD and Stem Cell Treatments
Because the presence of stem cells in the adult lung was confirmed only very recently, there are no stem cell treatments currently available to patients with COPD. However, researchers see stem cell therapy as a promising new direction for COPD treatment research.
In fact, scientists envision that one day, stem cells will be used to generate new, healthy lungs in people with chronic lung disease. Although it will probably be several years before science has advanced to the point where stem cell research can be attempted in people with COPD, if this treatment comes to fruition, it will save people with COPD from having to go through painful, dangerous, and often unsuccessful lung transplants.