Even after they quit smoking, some people can’t breathe easy. The chronic bronchitis and emphysema that can afflict long-term smokers, called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease COPD, never goes away and may even progress despite the smoker quitting. Now, researchers from UConn Health and the University of Houston report the reason in the May 14 issue of Cell: the lungs of people with COPD are filled with abnormal stem cells.
COPD, a progressive inflammatory disease of the lungs, affects 16 million Americans and costs about $49 billion each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Half the people with severe cases of the disease will die within five years. COPD is most commonly seen in longtime smokers, but people with asthma, viral pneumonia, and other inflammatory lung diseases who are chronically exposed to air pollution are also at risk.
COPD eventually damages airways and the alveoli, the tiny air sacs in the lungs that exchange carbon dioxide in the blood for oxygen. The Global Burden of Disease Study reports 251 million cases of the disease globally in 2016. But despite it accounting for more deaths than any single disease on the planet, relatively little has been written or understood about the root cause of COPD.
“It’s a frustrating disease to care for. We can try and improve the symptoms, but we don’t have anything that can cure the disease or prevent death,” says UConn Health pulmonologist and critical care doctor Mark Metersky.