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Stem Cell Therapy

The Pros and Cons of Stem Cell Therapy for COPD


Updated June 09, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

More and more, COPD is being recognized as a worldwide epidemic affecting over 200 million people and causing more than 3 million deaths annually. That no therapeutic intervention has been found to slow the progression of COPD speaks loudly for the importance of finding new ways to treat the disease. Stem cell therapy is slowly but surely making headlines in mainstream medicine as being a promising source of treatment for COPD and many other diseases.

What Are Stem Cells?

Stem cells are cells found in bone marrow and other organs. They can develop into any type of tissue that exists in the fully developed body, including any kind of blood cell: red blood cells, white blood cells, or platelets.

Because of their unique, regenerative properties, stem cells offer new hope for a variety of diseases, including diabetes mellitis, stroke, osteoporosis, heart disease and, more recently, COPD. Scientists are interested in using stem cells to repair damaged cells and tissues in the body because they are far less likely than to be rejected than foreign cells that originated from another source.

Types of Stem Cells

There are two types of stem cells that doctors work with most in both humans and animals: Embryonic stem cells are derived from a blastocyst, a type of cell found in mammalian embryos and adults stem cells which are derived from the umbilical cord, placenta or from blood, bone marrow, skin, and other tissues.

Embryonic stem cells have the capacity to develop into every type of tissue found in an adult. Embryonic stem cells used for research develop from eggs that have been fertilized in vitro (in a laboratory). After they are extracted from the embryo, the cells are grown in cell culture, an artificial medium used for medical research. It is atop this medium where they then divide and multiply.

Adult stem cells have been found in many organs and tissues of the body, but, once removed from the body, they have a difficult time dividing, which makes generating large quantities of them quite challenging. Currently, scientists are trying to find better ways to grow adult stem cells in cell culture and to manipulate them into specific types of cells that have the ability to treat injury and disease.

Where Do Stem Cells Come From?

Stem cells are either autologous, coming from your own body, or, allogenic, coming from another person who donates them. Many experts believe that autologous stem cells are much safer than allogenic because with allogenic stem cells, there is a greater risk of rejection by the immune system. The International Cellular Medicine Society, (ICMS), however, believes that many diseases would respond well to allogenic stem cell therapy and that patients must weigh the potential, long-term benefits with possible risks before making a decision.

Stem Cell Therapy and COPD

There is much controversy going on in the world of stem cell therapy and COPD. Why? While autologous stem cell treatment without manipulation is legal in the United States, without manipulation, treatments are not likely to be clinically relevant. For stem cell treatments to be clinically relevant, millions of stem cells need to be implanted into a designated recipient. Because generating millions of stem cells is difficult once they are removed from the body, scientists must manipulate them somehow to produce larger quantities. The FDA says that manipulation turns them into prescription drugs, and that this practice must therefore be tightly regulated. Stem cell advocates don't agree with the FDA's stand on this, and are currently fighting to get this changed.

How Do Stem Cells Help the Lungs?

Theoretically speaking, if the regenerative processes in the lungs can keep up with the destructive, inflammatory processes caused by smoking and other airway irritants that ultimately lead to COPD, the lungs would be able to maintain homeostasis, (balance) and lung tissue and function can be preserved.

Recent studies conducted on both animals and humans have revealed that stem cells contribute to lung tissue regeneration and protection, and thus administration of stem cells derived from exogenous sources may be an innovative way to treat COPD. In fact, current research reports that stem cells:

  • have the potential to better treat and possibly cure, many types of diseases;
  • protect lung tissue through suppression of inflammation;
  • trigger production of repairitive growth factors;
  • improve pulmonary emphysema in rats;
  • accelerate regeneration of the alveoli and blood vessels of the lungs after lung volume reduction surgery in rats.

Risks Involved With Stem Cell Therapy

While additional research is underway to further assess the safety and efficacy of stem cell treatment for COPD and other diseases, there are certain risks that have been clearly identified, primarily with allogenic stem cell therapy:

  • graft versus host disease
  • tumor formation
  • inappropriate migration of cells to other areas of the body
  • immune system rejection

Stem cell therapy for COPD is in its infancy, but even so, brings great hope to many patients who have exhausted other forms of COPD treatment. Before considering stem cell therapy, however, do your homework. There are clinics out there just waiting to take advantage of desperate people. No medical clinic in the U. S. will currently provide stem cell therapy with manipulation for COPD, though some medical institutions may enroll patients with COPD into research studies on stem cell therapy. If you participate in such a study, make sure it is approved by the review board of the institution. Learning all you can about the risks and benefits involved will enable you to make an informed decision and one that is best for you and your family.

Are you interested in learning more about stem cell treatment for COPD? Be sure to visit the Alternative Therapy Support Forum and read my interview with stem cell therapy pioneer Barbara Hanson.

Additional information can be found at the ICMS website, the ISSCR website, and Stem Cell Pioneers.


Tillie L Hackett, Darryl A Knight, and Don D S. Potential role of stem cells in management of COPD. Int J Chron Obstruct Pulmon Dis. 2010; 5: 81–88. Published online 2010 April 7.

The National Institute of Health for Stem Cell Research. Stem Cell Basics. Updated April 9, 2009.

Shunsuke Ohnishi and Noritoshi Nagaya. Tissue regeneration as next-generation therapy for COPD – potential applications. J Chron Obstruct Pulmon Dis. 2008 December; 3(4): 509–514. Published online 2008 December.

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