Lung diseases are among the most common of human afflictions, but also some of the most frightening that can affect an individual. These include everything from asthma to lung cancer. However, for a growing segment of the population, the most frightening condition is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD.
What Is COPD?
There is some misunderstanding in the world as to the nature of COPD. It is not, in fact, a single disease. It is actually a collection of related diseases. For instance, it includes both emphysema and chronic bronchitis. According to the US Centers for Disease Control,
“Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, refers to a group of diseases that cause airflow blockage and breathing-related problems…COPD makes breathing more difficult for the 16 million Americans who have this disease. Millions more people suffer from COPD, but have not been diagnosed and are not being treated.”
What Causes COPD?
While there is no single most common cause of COPD that can be applied to all sufferers, the most common issue seems to be long-term exposure to lung irritants. This can include smoking tobacco products (any type), but it can also include exposure to secondhand smoke, as well as exposure to other irritants, such as dust, chemical fumes, and even air pollution in the area where an individual lives.
A very small minority of suffers have a genetic condition called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency that might make them more susceptible to COPD’s symptoms. This is caused by a low level of a particular protein in the body that makes lung tissue more susceptible easier to damage. Patients who suffer from asthma may also be at risk for developing COPD, particularly if they smoke.
Understanding the Symptoms of COPD
COPD can take years to develop to the point that sufferers actually notice any symptoms at all. In most cases, it is a slow, progressive disease that worsens incrementally over many years. Some of the more common symptoms that may begin to present over time include a smoker’s cough, which is an ongoing cough, or a cough that produces a lot of mucus, even if the individual is not actually sick. Shortness of breath during physical activity is another common cause, as is a whistling or wheezing sound when the individual breathes. COPD sufferers are also more likely to get sick easily (colds and flu). However, note that these symptoms can also be related to any number of other conditions – a medical diagnosis is important.
Conventional Treatment Solutions for COPD Sufferers
There is no cure for COPD. However, there are many different treatment options that can help to alleviate symptoms and improve both the ability to breathe and how a person feels. These range from commonsense lifestyle changes to medications, therapies, rehabilitation and even surgery in some cases.
Lifestyle Changes: Lifestyle changes can make a very large difference in how a person suffering from COPD feels, and how easily they can breathe. Smoking cessation is perhaps the single most important change to make. If you smoke, stop. COPD will worsen much faster if you continue to smoke. Another lifestyle change to make is to lose weight. If shortness of breath and fatigue are preventing you from eating properly, a specialized meal plan may be necessary, as may vitamin supplements.
Medications: Many different medications can help to ease a patient’s shortness of breath. Bronchodilators are perhaps the most common – these open the airways and make it easier to breathe. In some cases, these may be combined with glucocorticosteriods.
Pulmonary Rehabilitation: This is a type of rehabilitation that helps patients improve their ability to breathe through exercises, counseling, nutritional training, and disease management training.
Oxygen Therapy: Depending on the severity of the COPD, a patient may need to wear and oxygen mask or nasal prongs to improve the level of oxygen in the blood.
Surgical Treatment: In some situations, the damage to lung tissues is so severe that surgery is necessary. A bullectomy, or the removal of large bullae from the lungs, is sometimes necessary performed. Surgery to remove damaged lung tissue may also be necessary. In very severe cases, a lung transplant may be needed.
Stem Cell Therapy and COPD
It is important to note that none of the treatment options above can cure COPD, short of a dual lung transplant. However, stem cell therapy may be able to offer relief for patients. In some cases, it may be able to halt, or even reverse the damage to lung tissue.
Why Stem Cell Therapy Might Work
Stem cells are the building blocks of the body’s regenerative system. They predate every other type of cell in the body, and can heal damaged tissues. In fact, they can transform themselves into other types of cells in order to speed the healing and repair process – that includes lung tissue cells.
Several studies have taken place using stem cells thus far, most notably using a patient’s own cells, called autologous stem cells. Fox News reported on one such experimental procedure in early 2016, in which patients saw benefits for roughly one year after treatment, but several others have taken place, as well.
However, all of these studies have relied on autologous stem cells. The problem with this is that these are the patient’s own stem cells, which means they are not energetic, and have limited regenerative capabilities due to accumulated damage and mutations. A better option is to use allogeneic stem cells, which are harvested not from a patient’s tissues (fat, generally), but from banked umbilical cord blood and tissue, instead.
These cells are young and very energetic, and have virtually limitless regenerative capabilities. They are also immune-naïve, meaning that they do not cause a negative response from the body’s immune system. Finally, because IV-infused stem cells congregate first in the lungs, where they multiply before dispersing throughout the body, they offer the potential to dramatically reduce COPD-related symptoms.
In the End
Ultimately, stem cell therapy for COPD is the way of the future, but it is important to realize that the FDA has not yet approved any such treatment. All stem cell treatments should be considered experimental. They are also not covered by insurance at this time.