Cells taken from a patient’s own lungs could be used to treat, or even cure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which affects around 1.4 million people in the UK and leaves many struggling breathe.
Research presented at last month’s European Respiratory Society International Congress in Milan, Italy, showed that after a cell transplant patients could breathe better, walk more and had a better quality of life.
Lung damage in two patients with emphysema (a type of COPD that often worsens over time) was completely repaired by the therapy.
The innovative treatment involves harvesting a type of cell capable of repairing damage, before cloning it to make millions of copies.
They are then injected back into the lungs. The technique has been hailed as a potential “game changer” by the charity Asthma + Lung UK.
Cells taken from a patient’s own lungs could be used to treat, or even cure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which affects around 1.4 million people in the UK and leaves many struggling breathe. Pictured: a female doctor with an illustration of the lungs.
COPD is a general term for serious respiratory diseases, including emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Pictured: Archive photo of the lungs.
COPD is a general term for serious respiratory diseases, including emphysema and chronic bronchitis.
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Patients often have difficulty breathing due to swollen and narrow airways. The main cause has been to explore the use of stem cell therapy.
Stem cells have the ability to regenerate or repair almost any tissue in the body. For example, mesenchymal stem cells, from bone marrow or umbilical cord blood, are used to treat several diseases and have had mixed results in studies to treat COPD.
The treatment uses progenitor cells, ‘descendants’ of stem cells, and instead of maturing into any type of tissue, they only become the tissue from which they came.
Researchers at Tongji University in Shanghai, China, harvested a type of progenitor cell called P63+, which can regenerate airway tissues, from the lungs of 17 COPD patients.
They inserted a catheter (a thin tube) with a small brush on the end into the patients’ lungs to collect the cells: these were used to grow millions more in the lab.
Days later, the lab-grown cells were transplanted into the lungs using bronchoscopy, in which a tube with a camera on the end is inserted into the airway through the mouth while the patient is sedated.
Previous research found that P63+ cells can repair COPD-related damage to alveoli walls; the little one smokes, but air pollution and genetics are also involved.
Over time, the walls of the airways thicken and mucus is produced, making symptoms worse. Cough is usually the first sign and those affected soon develop difficulty breathing and extreme wheezing. There is no cure.
Treatment involves medications, often inhaled through a nebulizer, to reduce inflammation and allow more oxygen to reach the lungs; or exercises to increase lung capacity.
The researchers found that the lungs’ average diffusing capacity (how well gases are exchanged between the lungs and bloodstream) improved from 30 percent before treatment to 40.3 percent after 24 weeks. Pictured: File photo of a doctor examining the lungs.
In recent years, scientists have discovered air sacs in the lungs that play a crucial role in gas exchange in supplying blood to the lungs.
Transplanting the patient’s own stem cells, rather than those from a donor, also reduces the risk of tissue rejection and serious side effects.
The researchers found that the lungs’ average diffusing capacity (how well gases are exchanged between the lungs and bloodstream) improved from 30 percent before treatment to 40.3 percent after 24 weeks.
Patients were also able to walk further distances and their quality of life scores increased, without serious side effects.
The researchers said that although stem cell transplantation could repair mild emphysema, as it did for the two patients, it is still not capable of curing severe emphysema. Larger studies are now planned.
Omar Usmani, professor of respiratory medicine at Imperial College London, said the results were “encouraging” but it was unclear how many of the transplanted cells would remain and actually trigger the growth of new, healthy tissue.
‘Therefore, we do not know whether some patients’ lungs responded better to transplantation than others. This may become evident in future studies,” she stated.