COPD and Stem Cell Therapy
All too often, we take our ability to breathe freely and easily for granted. It’s the most natural thing in the world to simply take a deep breath and feel fresh air move through our nostrils, and then down into our lungs. However, many health conditions make breathing difficult. COPD is one such medical condition. It affects millions of Americans, and can cause a dramatic reduction in quality of life.
What Is COPD?
The COPD Foundation defines the condition as,
“an umbrella term used to describe progressive lung diseases including emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and refractory (non-reversible) asthma. The disease is characterized by increasing breathlessness.”
The American Lung Association explains COPD as,
“a progressive lung disease that over time makes it hard to breathe”.
The Mayo Clinic sheds a bit more light by defining COPD as
“a chronic inflammatory lung disease that causes obstructed airflow from the lungs.”
What Are the Symptoms of COPD?
The primary symptom of COPD is increasing difficulty with breathing. Others include increasing mucus and phlegm, coughing, and wheezing. Chest tightness, frequent respiratory infections, a general lack of energy, swelling in the legs and feet, and blueness of the lips and fingernail beds are also signs of the condition.
What Causes COPD?
COPD can be caused by a number of different things. In industrialized nations, the most common cause is smoking. However, significant exposure to secondhand smoke can also cause COPD in patients who have never smoked themselves. In less industrialized nations, COPD is usually attributed to exposure to smoke from cooking fires, fumes from other fuel used for cooking, smoke from home-heating fires, and exposure to other caustic agents, including fine particulates such as dust.
Who Is at Risk for COPD?
Those most at risk of developing COPD are smokers and ex-smokers. Those who live in a smoker’s household but do not smoke themselves are also at increased risk for developing COPD. Individuals in specific occupations, such as mining, may also have an increased risk. Living in poorly ventilated homes heated with wood or coal fires also increases risk. Anyone working in an occupation where they are exposed to particulates in the air, chemicals, or fumes may also be at an increased risk for developing COPD.
How Is COPD Treated?
COPD has many different treatment options. Part of this is because there are several different underlying conditions lumped together under the COPD banner that may respond to different medications and treatments. For instance, chronic bronchitis will respond to different treatment methods than asthma. Note that there is no cure for COPD and it is a long-lasting condition that will grow progressively worse, even with treatment.
The most common type of treatment available for COPD sufferers is medication. These include bronchodilators to widen the airways in your lungs. Glucocorticosteroids may also be used. Oxygen therapy is another important treatment method. Other medications include antivirals and antibiotics, theophylline, and phosphodiesterase-4 inhibitors. Surgery may be recommended in some instances if other treatment methods have not yielded results. Lung transplants, bullectomies and lung volume reduction surgeries are all used.
COPD sufferers should also make several important lifestyle changes to help alleviate their symptoms and improve their quality of life. Stopping smoking is an obvious first step. However, sufferers should also avoid secondhand smoke whenever possible. Eating a balanced diet is important, too, as is getting the right amount of exercise.
What Can Stem Cell Therapy Offer COPD Sufferers?
In addition to conventional treatments, stem cell therapy is being explored as an option for COPD sufferers. Stem cells are progenitor cells – they are the original type of cell in the human body that differentiates into all other types. Stem cells within developing embryos become bone and muscle tissue, skin tissue, and even lung tissue.
Stem cell therapy is being explored in a number of clinical studies around the world at present and a number of important findings have been noted. In a study published in the Journal of Thoracic Disease, the authors noted,
“Exogenous mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) have been reported to repair the structure and improve the function of the injured respiratory system in COPD models. However, the studies that used MSCs in patients with moderate-to-severe COPD patients did not lead to clear respiratory functional improvements. Exogenous human lung stem cells applied to cryo-injured (CI) lungs of mice have been shown to organize into human-like pulmonary structures, indicating a new property of stem cells that is potentially capable of curing COPD patients.”
Another study, this one published in the American Journal of Stem Cells, noted,
“Stem cell based therapies that have been successfully applied to other diseases are a new approach for COPD and degenerative lung diseases treatment. Stem cells may deliver some signals to host cells, inducing a regenerative mechanism against alveolar destruction in the COPD lung. MSCs are now known to have potent beneficial effects in animal models of many types of lung injury including cigarette smoke-induced or elastase-induced COPD/emphysema, bleomycine-induced fibrosis, bronchopulmonary dysplasia, ventilator-induced lung injury, and bacterial pneumonia. Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) effectively reduce airway inflammation and regenerate the alveolus in cigarette- and elastase-induced chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Stem cells also affect the regenerative genes.”
After stem cells infused intravenously they travel to oxygen reach lungs where they multiply and strengthen. A high concentration of stem cells is a foundation of quick lung response to such a treatment. Imaging and functional studies frequently do not show noticeable changes but patients commonly have diminished need in oxygen and at times stop using it altogether. This phenomena may indicate yet unknown mechanisms of improvement of respiratory function.
Stem Cell Types
It should be noted that two types of stem cells are used in trials and experimental therapies. Autologous stem cells are harvested from the patient themselves. While this seems like a beneficial option, these cells lack the energy, adaptability, and lifespan of other options. Allogeneic stem cells from umbilical cord blood and tissue have much greater energy, are pluripotent stem cells, and are immune system naïve, meaning they do not cause immune reactions.
While further study is necessary, stem cell therapy may offer COPD sufferers hope of lung tissue regeneration in the near future. Note that currently, the FDA has not approved any stem cell treatment in the US. Any such therapies are only experimental.