Patients' own lung cells can cure severe respiratory disease

Scientists grew progenitor cells in a lab using original cells and reintroduced the cells back into COPD patients' lungs. This technique reversed the irreversible lung damage caused by COPD.
Rupendra Brahambhatt
An illustration of human respiratory system
An illustration of human respiratory system

Rasi Bhadramani/iStock 

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the third leading cause of death globally and the sixth leading cause in the US. 

The National Institute of Health (NIH) estimates that COPD currently affects over 15 million individuals in the US. What’s even more worrisome is that many others could have the condition but don’t know about it yet.

In COPD, a patient’s airways are blocked, and they experience difficulty breathing. Chronic bronchitis and emphysema are the two most common forms of this condition. Its symptoms range from wheezing to chest tightness and chronic cough. 

Unfortunately, many people tend to ignore these initial signs, which, over a period of time, results in irreversible lung damage.

A new non-peer-reviewed study reveals a method to reverse the irreversible lung damage caused by COPD

The study authors recently conducted a phase one trial involving severe COPD patients who were likely to die from the disease. Surprisingly, scientists repaired the damaged lung tissues and improved their condition, using cells from the patient's airways only.

“The results from this phase I clinical trial are encouraging. COPD is in desperate need of new and more effective treatments, so if these results can be confirmed in subsequent clinical trials, it will be very exciting,” said Omar Usmani, a professor of respiratory medicine at Imperial College London who was not involved in the study.  

Special progenitor cells reverse lung damage

The trial involved 20 patients, out of which nine patients suffered from extremely severe COPD, six had severe COPD, two were diagnosed with mild emphysema, and three acted as a control group. 

During their study, the researchers discovered that P63+ progenitor cells could be the key to reversing lung damage. These are particular types of stem cells found in various tissues of the skin, breast, digestive tracts, and airways. Their primary function is to maintain and repair epithelial tissues in the body.

The researchers knew that P63+ cells play an essential role in maintaining and repairing the respiratory tract's epithelial lining, including the airways. 

“We and other scientists have shown in animal experiments that they can repair the damaged epithelial tissue in the alveoli – the tiny air sacs in the lungs that play a crucial role in the exchange of gases between air breathed in and the blood supply to the lungs,”  said Wei Zuo, one of the study authors and a professor at Tongji University School of Medicine.

Based on this information, they performed an interesting experiment. They took out some P63+ progenitor cells from the lungs of the patients, cultured those in a lab until these cells turned into millions in number, and finally placed the cells back into the patient's airways.

When Zuo and his team examined the patients 24 weeks after the experiment, they noticed that various parameters indicating lung health improved in all the participants who received the cultured P63+ progenitor cells.

For instance, the average diffusion capacity, which shows a healthy air exchange between lungs and blood, rose to 40.3 percent from 30 percent. Patients’ average six-minute walking distance also increased from 410 m to 447m, indicating they suffered less from shortness of breath during physical activity.

Moreover, the two mild emphysema patients showed a seven-point improvement in a test that represented an assessment of quality of life (regarding respiratory health). Zuo said, “This means that the patients could live a better life, usually with longer life expectancy. 

He added, “If emphysema progresses, it increases the risk of death. In this trial, we found that P63+ progenitor cell transplantation could repair mild emphysema, making the lung damage disappear. However, we cannot repair severe emphysema yet.”

The researchers will now conduct phase two trials involving a larger group of COPD patients. They believe their method may also work against deadly lung disorders such as idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. 

The study was presented at the European Respiratory Society International Congress 2023.

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