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Of Mice and Men: Scientists Find a Way to Regrow Alveoli

By February 27, 2013

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Researchers at Johns Hopkins may have recently outdone themselves. Based upon data from a recent study, they may have identified a way for people with COPD to regrow their alveoli, the tiny air sacs in the lungs that get destroyed after long-term exposure to tobacco smoke and other noxious stimuli.

The alveoli, located deep within the lung, play a starring role in the respiratory system as within their tiny walls, the process of gas exchange takes place.  In the healthy lung, the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide is well-balanced; in COPD, it is not. The destruction of the alveoli commonly seen in emphysema impairs the process of gas exchange, often leading to hypoxemia and hypercapnia, two potentially dangerous complications of COPD. To date, there is no effective treatment that can repair damaged alveoli, once they've been destroyed.

During the experiment, scientists used hepatocyte growth factor (HGF), a protein that regulates cell growth and motility, to regrow alveoli and restore lung structure in mice that were genetically engineered to have a human-like form of emphysema. The study consisted of three groups of mice. Half of the mice received HGF, delivered by way of a special pump under their skin, while the other half received a placebo. In addition, a control group was formed, using mice with healthy lungs in which half received either HGF or a placebo.

Senior study author Enid Neptune, M.D., associate professor of pulmonary and critical care medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, reported the following findings:

"We found that the mice with emphysema, when given the HGF, developed a 17 percent improvement in the size of their air sacs compared to placebo-treated mice, consistent with improved lung structure and function. The HGF also was protective, preventing destruction of the alveoli by reducing the oxidative stress that contributes to lung injury. In essence, the HGF was able to block a major enemy of the functioning alveoli."

Additional findings were as follows:

  • Control-group mice with healthy lungs that received HGF demonstrated no change in the size of their alveoli.
  • Mice with emphysema that were treated with a placebo showed no improvement.
  • As suspected, when scientists removed the HGF receptor from young mice with developing lungs, they found that their alveoli did not form correctly, that the  blood vessels supplying the alveoli were fewer in number and that there was an increase in oxidative stress and inflammation.

According to Dr. Neptune, the study was "an important demonstration that a growth factor can be used as a drug for emphysema." It was pointed out however, that because HGF reduces cellular death and promotes proliferation of cellular growth, further research is necessary to find a way to hone-in on activating the protein's therapeutic benefit, instead of it's potential to cause malignancy and cancer.


Medicine, Johns Hopkins. "New Air Sacs Created In Mouse Model Of Emphysema Using Novel Growth Factor." Medical News Today. MediLexicon, Intl., 18 Feb. 2013. Web. 26 Feb. 2013.

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February 28, 2013 at 3:14 pm
(1) Robert E. Beckner says:

At this moment I would like to be a mouse and try HGF to re-build my Aveoli holding no one responsible…Robert E. Beckner

February 28, 2013 at 3:48 pm
(2) Lynda B says:

Yeah, you and me both.

February 28, 2013 at 4:24 pm
(3) mary ann gaudio says:

i would love to be a human trial of this process…..i too,

would hold all persons and institutions harmless……when and where can i sign up?

February 28, 2013 at 4:26 pm
(4) mary ann gaudio says:

i want to sign up also……i, too, would hold all persons and institutions harmless…..

March 1, 2013 at 12:45 pm
(5) jean says:

I too would like to be a human trial, no one knows what it is like not to breathe. I pray to die because this is no life. Each day it gets worse!!!

March 1, 2013 at 2:18 pm
(6) Patricia Lewis says:

So it’s not new air sacs but growth the size of existing air sacs? That’s what it sounds like.

The article says “to regrow” but later says “a 17 percent improvement in the size of their air sacs.”

Thus, it’s a bit confusing as to whether there are new air sacs or whether the existing ones just get bigger. And does bigger equal more capacity to exchange oxygen with CO2?

March 2, 2013 at 1:19 am
(7) copd says:

Patricia, the way I look at it is growth is growth, whether it starts from existing alveoli, or ones that have been destroyed.

March 6, 2013 at 3:28 pm
(8) Jim Stricklin says:

How do i get signed up in these experiments ??? More than wiling to
to try this attempt……..

March 9, 2013 at 3:29 am
(9) Andrew K says:

Given the repetitive capacity for scientist to induce in situ alveolar regeneration in rodent models, beginning with ATRA (over a decade ago) and leading to stem cells, jb1a, and other pharmaceutical variants most recently HGF, not that this is the first study to utilize HGF despite the author’s claims, I have little faith that these discoveries will be realized clinically any time soon and I believe the claims of this article and others to be misleading in that regard. Perhaps more attention should be dedicated towards current trials that have a realistic potential to be implemented therapeutically in our lifetimes. While the importance of hope cannot be overstated, it is more important to give people a pragmatic idea of future treatment potentials for this deadly disease.

What a hoot!

March 10, 2013 at 12:51 pm
(10) copd says:

Andrew, I stand corrected on the “first study of its kind” portion of my blog post, and have fixed the error. However, I think you are very wrong about accusing me of trying to mislead people. I reported the results and conclusion of the study. What part of this do you find misleading? I extracted the information from the study. If you are talking about the initial title of the story, I changed that on the same day I posted the blog because it did not sit well with me and may have sounded a bit too puffed up. Are you saying that, just because this treatment may not be available in our lifetimes, it should not be reported? Then, we may as well not report about half the studies that are out there about COPD and other chronic illnesses. Reporting on treatment options, whether realized today, or 50 years from now, are important to talk about and an important step to someday finding a cure for this deadly disease. If you don’t have hope, then you may as well throw in the towel and call it a day. I won’t apologize for my optimism.

March 10, 2013 at 12:53 pm
(11) copd says:

To all those asking about signing up for a study like this, to date, they are not being done on humans. Hopefully someday that will change.

June 25, 2013 at 9:15 pm
(12) Jack Lynn says:

If you ever start accepting humans, I would gladly throw my name in the ring. This emphysema is too much of a pain…

October 4, 2013 at 7:17 am
(13) jason says:

Sign me up. only 30% of normal lung capacity here.

October 23, 2013 at 8:37 pm
(14) Jack says:

I am here to give it a try.

October 23, 2013 at 8:39 pm
(15) Jack says:

Call me, I will be there

November 14, 2013 at 12:42 pm
(16) VICTOR says:

I pray to god that this research soon becomes fruitful and they cure people with COPD.

November 19, 2013 at 7:58 pm
(17) Fred says:

What are the latest developments on the use of Losartan potassium in mice with induced COPD in stopping destruction of and possible regrowth of alveoli?

December 31, 2013 at 2:16 pm
(18) Ken says:

Have any of you tried Cayenne pepper tincture. It is just great and with no known side effects gets your breathing so that you can take a deep breath, just a great feeling, All the best to you all in 2014.

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