Researchers of the School of Literature and Sciences in Assis, in the Brazilian state of São Paulo, local campus of the Paulista State University, started, last April, the studies of a terapy using stem cells to treat patients suffering of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), especially those with advanced emphysema.
According to geneticist João Tadeu Ribeiro Paes, main author of the study, the National Comission for Ethics in Research – the institution which regulates researches – has authorized research on humans.
COPD can manifest itself as bronchitis or emphysema. The last one is a chronic disease caused in 90% of the time by cigarettes, which cause inflammation on the bronchi and destroy alveoli and lung tissue. A rate of 6% to 7% of the population over 40 years old has emphysema. There is no cure.
According to Paes, the university has already selected four patients who will take part in the experimental treatment. The results were already tested in mice. The animals showed regeneration of lung tissue and improvement in respiratory capability.
Because it’s an experimental technique, the first step of the study will have as a main purpose to know if the terapy will not harm the patient’s health. Therefore, only patients with no possibility of treatment were selected.
The first volunteers signed a term of consent. They will be observed for a year and the first results might appear in four months.
During three days, the patients will receive specific medication to estimulate the production of stem cells in the bone marrow. After this period, during a surgery with local anesthesia, around 150 ml of bone marrow cells will be gathered through a lumbar puncture.
These cells with be prepared at the lab and injected in the volunteer through a peripheral vein in the arm. Through a mechanism yet to be explained by medicine, these cells might migrate to the damaged tissue. The researchers imagine the diseased tissue will release some chemichal substance to draw these stem cells to the region.
The researchers’ expetation is that the lung tissue will regenerate and stabilize the advance of the disease. Another hypothesis is that the technique improves the lung functions – as it happened with the mice.
Paes says they are not proposing a miracle nor the cure for the disease, and they don’t want to creat false expectations, but their hope is that stem cells prevent the evolution of the disease. “I know we are in a fronteer, but this may be what turns this clinical terapy definitive, in which the patient suffering from this disease gets stem cells applications,” he says.
Caution - Pulmonologist Alberto Cukier, professor at the University of São Paulo and coordinator of the COPD comission of the Brazilian Pulmonology Society, is cautious when he evaluates the experimental terapy, because he says there still isn’t a technique capable of regenerating the lung tissue and, besides, the present treatment consists in cutting off tobbaco to avoid the progression of the disease, using some medication and making exercises.
“There’s no cure and there are many patients waiting for lung transplants. This research is being carried away by a serious university, but that’s an experimental procedure, still far from having clinical application. As we don’t have the results, there’s nothing that could be made immediately”, Cukier ponders.
Pulmonologist Mauro Musa Zamboni, from the thorax service of the National Cancer Institute, is also cautious when he evaluates the possibilities of the new treatment. He says he ignores any research using stem cells to treat lung diseases in humans.
“There are many studies using stem cells in animals. This seems to be the first one in humans, but it’s still very early to think about the results. It’s very unpredictable,” he says.
According to Zamboni, there is a huge field of research with stem cells and he’s an very high expectation related to this in many areas of medicine. “The first results seem promising, but we still don’t have anything effective for the clinical practice.”