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Finding the Foundations of Pulmonary Fibrosis

lungsPulmonary fibrosis is a deadly lung disease that affects around 140,000 Americans. The disease causes the development of scar tissue in the lungs. This scar tissue builds up and eventually obstructs sufferers from breathing. Some causes of pulmonary fibrosis include smoking cigarettes, exposure to some gasses and other lung irritants and some viral illnesses, like the Epstein-Barr virus. However, for many pulmonary fibrosis sufferers, the cause of the disease is said to be idiopathic, or unknown. However, researchers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California, have been able to uncover one cause previously unknown to science and medicine – the inability of lung stem cells in certain individuals to repair themselves after injury.

Pulmonary fibrosis is part of a group of lung diseases known as interstitial lung diseases. Interstitial lung diseases cause obstructive scar tissue to form in the lungs. For patients with pulmonary fibrosis, this scar tissue cannot be reversed, but can sometimes be slowed down with medical interventions. The life expectancy of a patient with pulmonary fibrosis is typically only three to five years after diagnosis, but some patients live longer for unknown reasons.

As part of the Cedars-Sinai study, researchers examined the small sacs located at the end of the lung airways called alveoli. It is in the alveoli that the lungs convert oxygen into carbon dioxide. The cells that line the alveoli sacs are called epithelial cells, and these epithelial cells keep the air sacs open allowing patients to breathe. In patients that have pulmonary fibrosis, these cells become abnormal. When this cell lining becomes abnormal, tough, fibrous tissue develops in the lung, causing patients to suffocate slowly. Many PF patients require supplemental oxygen to survive. The disease can also lead to lung infections, heart attack, and stroke.

In most people, if the epithelial lining of the lungs becomes damaged from irritant or infection, stem cells known as AEC2 cells that are found in the lungs immediately begin repairing damaged tissue and replacing cells. The study found that pulmonary fibrosis patients have less of these AEC2 stem cells, and the ones they do have are slow to repair or regenerate. The study also found that the cells also had a lower concentration of hyaluronan, a naturally occurring substance found in the body that is critical to cell health and repair. These findings are extremely important, as the study is the first of its kind to connect idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis to a stem cell failure in the lungs. This research is also critical for physicians and their ability to develop a treatment for the disorder that involves stem cell therapy.

Currently, other lung conditions are being treated with stem cell therapy. One of these conditions is a Chronic Pulmonary Obstructive Disorder or COPD. It is estimated that 11 million people in the United States are living with a form of COPD, and over 120,000 individuals die from it each year. COPD patients have lung tissue that becomes inflamed. Many COPD patients experience similar symptoms to pulmonary fibrosis such as shortness of breath, difficulty breathing and strain on the heart and other organs. Despite having similar symptoms, they are different diseases. One of the main differences is that COPD is a grouping of diseases, including emphysema and chronic bronchitis, while PF is a single disease. COPD involves the overproduction of mucus in the lungs in comparison to PF’s production of scar tissue. Finally, COPD always occurs as a direct result of irritants, such as smoking or chemical inhalation, or genetics, while some pulmonary fibrosis cases happen for unknown reasons, or as the Cedars-Sinai study shows, as a result of a defect in lung stem cells.

Dr. Bill Johnson, M.D., treats COPD patients at his Dallas, Texas, stem cell therapy center. Johnson uses stem cells harvested from the patient’s adipose fat tissue through a process known as SVF, or stromal vascular fraction therapy. The cells are deployed back into the body intravenously and through inhalation during a 20 to 30-minute office visit. Once the cells are in the body, they immediately go to work to repair damaged lung tissue.

"Patients we have treated for COPD with SVF therapy report an increase in their oxygen saturation level," says Johnson. Most patients only need one SVF treatment, and report results of increased ability to exercise, or even walk, without becoming winded. "Many patients report an improved quality of life after treatment," says Johnson.

Johnson uses SVF stem cell therapy to not only treat COPD patients, but patients suffering from a host of conditions, including neurological disorders, osteoarthritis, and spinal cord injuries.

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