Despite the rising prevalence, morbidity, and mortality among women, there is little medical understanding of the disease's gender differences. The American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine conducted a study that has demonstrated the disease is manifested differently in the genders, and risk factors, symptoms, disease progression, and even diagnosis, differ substantially.
COPD is comprised of two formerly distinct diseases known as emphysema, an abnormality in lung tissue, and chronic bronchitis, an obstruction of airways. One of the major gender differences is that, in women, COPD tends to take the form of chronic bronchitis and, in men, COPD tends to take the form of emphysema.
Historically, women’s' smoking behavior lagged behind men and lung cancer in women rose substantially following the large increases in lung cancer in men in the 20th century. The same phenomenon may apply to COPD. Women tend to be more prone to developing COPD from exposure to risk factors, such as cigarette smoke and smoke from biomass fuels used for cooking.
However, women are also predominant among COPD patients who have never smoked, and may have gender-linked genetic factors that make them vulnerable to developing the disease.
Despite the ongoing challenges, there is new hope on the horizon: Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) have reported finding human lung stem cells. These cells will hopefully allow the lungs to actually regenerate themselves by forming and integrating multiple biological structures of the lung, including bronchioles, alveoli and pulmonary vessels.
The cells were isolated from surgical samples and then grown both in the lab and in vitro – in a living host organism. The isolated cells demonstrated all the characteristics of true stem cells – the ability to replicate, to evolve into separate and different kinds of cell tissue and to be transmissible from one organism to the next. In this case, the cells were injected into mice with damaged lungs. The cells not only survived in the mice but were able to grow and develop into new bronchioles, alveoli and pulmonary vessel cells which not only formed new lung tissue, but also integrated structurally to the existing lung tissue in the mice.
“These are the critical first steps in developing clinical treatments for those with lung disease for which no therapies exist. Further research is needed, but we are excited about the impact this discovery could have on our ability to regenerate or recreate new lung tissues to replace damaged areas of the lungs,” said Joseph Loscalzo, MD, PhD, chair of the Department of Medicine at BWH and co-author.
This research was funded through grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).