Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, also known as COPD, is a very common diagnosis after the era of tobacco smoking. It is a preventable disease that causes difficulty breathing due to airway inflammation. Patients’ lives are disrupted by COPD, and there is no real cure. New research is being done into alternative therapies, but there is still yet work to be done.
What is COPD?
COPD is a chronic lung disease caused almost entirely by inhaling toxins. There is a small subset of COPD that is genetic, but the majority of cases are caused by smoking tobacco products (90%) or inhaling toxins, like pollution. The toxins cause inflammation to different parts of the airway, interfering with the exchange of oxygen and CO2. The bronchi, or pipes of the lung, become narrower. The alveoli, or small bags at the ends of the pipes that are responsible for exchanging oxygen and CO2, become distended. Over time, oxygen decreases, and CO2 increases.
What are the symptoms?
People with COPD often notice increased difficulty breathing, increased exertion with once simple tasks, or other breathing problems. They may breathe faster, have a faster pulse, or feel dizzy. They may have more generalized symptoms, like feeling more tired, down, and may even experience weight loss. Patients also often notice a nagging cough that produces phlegm. When people with COPD cough more with increased sputum or a change in their sputum, this is called a COPD exacerbation.
How is it diagnosed?
A diagnosis of COPD is technically made through a test called Pulmonary Function Tests, or PFTs. A certified medical professional will ask the patient to blow into a tube that measures the power of their lungs. Based on their inspiration and expiration, the clinician can see if they have a lung disease, what type, and the severity. COPD can also be confirmed using imaging, usually using computed tomography (CT) of the chest. The lungs show characteristics specific to COPD on imaging, including something as simple as an X-ray.
How is it currently treated?
The best treatment for COPD is prevention: avoiding smoking tobacco products or inhaling other toxins. Beyond that, the treatment for COPD depends on the severity of the disease. All people with COPD should immediately quit smoking. This is the single most effective step to slow the decline in lung function, a fact which has been proven again and again. People should also do breathing exercises called pulmonary rehabilitation. Physical activity also helps by maintaining endurance, making it easier to breathe under normal circumstances.
There are also medications that people with COPD may take, depending on the stage of their disease. They can take bronchodilators, inhaled corticosteroids, Beta-2 agonists, and combinations of these drugs.
How may it be treated in the future?
Scientists are hoping that stem cells are the next frontier for COPD treatment. Stem cells are highly useful. They are cells that naturally occur in the body that can become many different types of cells. For example, there is the possibility that a stem cell could become a lung tissue cell, or another type of cell that repairs damaged tissue.
The current state of research proposes that stem cells may be beneficial for COPD, but that there are many unknowns. In particular, many studies show that certain types of stem cells decrease inflammation. Since inflammation is one of the main factors in COPD, this is obviously beneficial. Stem cells can also induce production of tissue, which theoretically could replace damaged lung tissue.
However, the main issues are the variables involved in the research. Scientists believe that the success of stem cells in COPD hinges on these variables. For example, they believe that the DNA damage, stress done to certain cell lines, use of various medications, and timing of the diagnosis in the course of the disease highly alters the success of stem cells.
COPD is a disease that can have devastating consequences. While preventable, once a person is diagnosed with COPD, there is no cure. People can be managed well with current treatment provided that the disease process is caught early enough. However, the treatment still has room for improvement. Scientists are now researching the effects of stem cells on COPD. The early research is promising, but there is still much more to be done. To learn more about how stem cell transplants may help you accomplish your health goals, contact the Stem Cell Transplant Institute today.