Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a chronic lung disease that limits lung function and causes difficulty in breathing. According to the American Lung Association, it is the third leading cause of disease-related death in the U.S. The World Health Organization estimates more than 3 million people die of the progressive disease in a single year.
Because of the prevalence of the disease and the fact that there is no universal treatment protocol, some researchers have begun exploring alternative therapies. Health care providers and families of people living with COPD are eager to find options to reduce the severity of symptoms and improve quality of life. Consequently, stem cell research is being investigated as a potential treatment for COPD.
Stem cells can be obtained from embryonic, fetal, or adult tissue. There are ethical considerations when using embryonic cells and fetal tissue, so preference is given to the use of adult stem cells taken from blood, bone marrow, fat, muscle, or teeth — or from a placenta following childbirth.
Adult stem cells help repair tissues and organs during a person’s life. They can also traverse the site of an injury to help it heal. While stem cells have been used successfully to regenerate skin, vascular tissue, bone, and cartilage, the three-dimensional architecture of the lung is a technical challenge.
Stem cell research for COPD is in its infancy in the United States. Currently, clinical trials have been only phase one or phase two studies. Most of the studies took samples of cells from an individual’s lungs, tissue, plasma, or bone marrow; processed them; and reintroduced them into the sedated donor. Researchers looked to see if there were any adverse effects, an increase in lung function, or improvement in quality of life over time.
Preclinical studies on therapies using mesenchymal stem cells (MSC) have shown promise in treating or preventing COPD and emphysema, but clinical studies haven’t been successful in replicating the results. However, the fact that MSC treatment can be tolerated is encouraging news to researchers at this time.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease takes an immense physical toll on the adults who have the disease, so it might be tempting to look at stem cell treatments available from for-profit entities (or those being offered in other countries) that provide compelling testimonials or promise miracle cures. Both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the American Lung Association have issued warnings against pursuing unproven and unregulated stem cell treatments. The Assembly on Respiratory Cell & Molecular Biology Stem Cell Working Group strongly cautioned patients “not to participate in these or any other comparable unauthorized or unapproved stem cell interventions, unless independent credible, reliable, and objective sources of information are available to substantiate the information and claims being made.”
Stem cell therapies can offer hope for the future, but there is risk of injury or even death when participating in clinical trials. Participants should be fully briefed on experimental procedures. If you chose to be a part of a clinical trial, you should know your risks, rights, and protections. You should also be aware that your participation in a clinical trial is voluntary and you may withdraw at any time. You have the right to ask questions if anything in the informed consent document is unclear, and you should always consult your physician before agreeing to participate in a clinical trial. A list of clinical studies for stem cell treatment of COPD which are now accepting volunteer participants can be found on the National Institutes of Health website ClinicalTrials.gov.
Researchers are also looking for other alternative therapies for COPD beyond stem cell and regenerative therapy. Immunization, exercise programs, drugs, and periodontal treatments are all being explored. In total, there are more than 400 clinical trials now recruiting participants with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Breathing is an essential function of life and is never taken for granted by anyone living with COPD. An increasing number of Americans are struggling each day because of this disease. Hope lives on the horizon with the promise of new drugs and therapies. Stem cells may one day offer lung restoration. Support of regulated clinical trials and research today may yield help for those living with COPD in the future.