Researchers Find New Way to Study, Treat Lung Disease

Analyzing tissue from the easier-to-reach airways could be key in treating lung disease.


Lung photo via Shutterstock

New research from Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) points to a new way to study and potentially treat a common and deadly lung disease called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which causes loss of lung function and is the third leading cause of death in the United States according to the National Institutes of Health.

Until now, COPD has been difficult to detect since it primarily affects tissues deep in the lungs that are hard for physicians to reach. But the researchers, whose findings were published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Clinical Care Medicine, decided to see if signs of COPD could be found in the more accessible tissues of the respiratory tract, the goal being to find ways to diagnose COPD in a less invasive, easier procedure.

To test their idea, the researchers performed a bronchoscopy (a test that examines the airways, or bronchi) on 238 current and former smokers (87 of whom had been diagnosed with COPD) to gather samples of airway tissues. The researchers found that the samples from individuals with COPD had 98 genes expressed at different levels than the non-COPD sample. Further, the gene expressions were consistent with the genes researchers had found to be expressed in deep lung tissue in previous studies, suggesting that analyzing respiratory tract tissue is a viable and relatively painless way to detect COPD.

A report from BUSM quotes one of the study’s senior authors, Marc Lenburg:

“Part of the COPD ‘signature’ reverses with therapy, suggesting that examining airway cells might be a minimally invasive tool for monitoring the disease and evaluating the response to therapy more quickly in order to determine the best course of treatment for each individual patient,” said Marc Lenburg, PhD, associate professor in computational biomedicine and bioinformatics at BUSM.

The study’s other senior author, Avrum Spira, speaks to the discovery’s potential to improve treatment options:

“Studying COPD using the large airway opens up some really exciting new avenues of research that could also improve care for patients with COPD,” said Spira. “While we are still at an early stage, I envision being able to examine airway cells from my patients with COPD to determine what is causing the disease and, from that information, recommend a more specific and effective treatment.”