New research shows that a specific type of white blood cell can be manipulated to ease the body’s immune response to COPD.

Two experimental therapies may be able to control chronic inflammation in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

One of the proposed therapies is found in red sage, a Chinese medicinal herb that has been used for centuries to treat problems with menstruation, heart disorders, and blood circulation.

Researchers in the U.K. say Tanshinone IIA, a compound found naturally in red sage, could act as a powerful weapon against chronic inflammation by controlling the response of a certain type of white blood cell.

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Neutrophils are the most abundant type of white blood cell in the human body. They fight infections and help increase the immune response of other cells. But while they are normally beneficial, they can create lasting tissue damage in people with autoimmune disorders.

Researchers believe they can help reduce inflammation in chronic conditions like COPD by driving harm-causing neutrophils away. Teams at the University of Edinburgh Medical School in Scotland and other facilities discovered the beneficial properties of red sage while testing the inflammatory response in zebrafish, a common, translucent fish found at pet stores.

They tested the effects of thousands of compounds on the immune responses of fish whose tails were injured. Because the fish were genetically modified to have their neutrophils glow green, researchers were able to see inside the fish as their bodies responded to their injuries.

They found that Tanshinone IIA had the biggest impact on reducing the inflammatory response by either driving neutrophils away from the site or causing cell death.

The researchers, who published their findings in the journal Science Translational Medicine, say that targeting these neutrophil-clearing mechanisms may be useful in creating more-effective anti-inflammatory drugs.

“The fact that Tanshinone IIA is already used in traditional Chinese medicine makes it likely that future drugs containing this compound wouldn’t be toxic to humans,” researchers concluded.

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One of the troubles with anti-inflammatory drugs is that they cover the entire body, often with unwanted side effects.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) have found a way around that by using nanoparticles—a microscopic particle—to keep neutrophils from binding with blood vessel walls.

The UIC research team has designed a nanoparticle embedded with an anti-inflammatory drug to target neutrophils.

“The nanoparticle is very much like a Trojan horse,” Asrar B. Malik, the Schweppe Family Distinguished Professor and head of pharmacology in the UIC College of Medicine said in a press release. “It binds to a receptor found only on these activated, sticky neutrophils, and the cell automatically engulfs whatever binds there. Because circulating neutrophils lack these receptors, the system is incredibly precise and targets only those immune cells that are actively contributing to inflammatory disease.”

They tested these nanoparticles in real-time in mice induced with the vascular inflammation seen in COPD. The researchers used piceatannol, a metabolite of a compound found in red wine, and found that neutrophils detached from one another and left the blood vessel walls. Effectively neutralized, they were prevented from contributing to the inflammation process.

The results show, Malik said, “that nanoparticles can be used to deliver drugs in a highly targeted, specific fashion to activated immune cells and could be designed to treat a broad range of inflammatory diseases.”

Their findings were published in the latest issue of the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

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