Researchers from the UNC School of Medicine and North Carolina State University (NCSU) have developed a treatment for several lung conditions using stem cell therapy. The promising therapy has the potential to treat idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and cystic fibrosis, which affect millions. This has been published in the journal Respiratory Research.

Researchers showed that using non-invasive, doctor's-office technique, they could harvest lung stem cells from people and these lung cells could further be multiplied in lab sufficiently for human therapy.

In a second study, this type of lung cells were used to effectively treat IPF in a rodent model, published in the journal Stem Cells Translational Medicine.

"This is the first time anyone has generated potentially therapeutic lung stem cells from minimally invasive biopsy specimens," said senior author Jason Lobo, MD, an assistant professor of medicine at UNC.

"We think the properties of these cells make them potentially therapeutic for a wide range of lung fibrosis diseases," said Ke Cheng, PhD, an associate professor in NCSU's Department of Molecular Biomedical Sciences.

In IPF, chronic lung inflammation reduces lung’s ability to transfer oxygen to the blood, which can turn fatal for the patient. FDA has approved two drugs for treating IPF but they only produced symptomatic relief. Lung transplant is only the effective treatment. Stem cells offer an alternative to treat IPF. The anti-inflammatory and anti-fibrosis properties of some of these cells is an advantage to therapy.

Cheng and Lobo, focused on lung spheroid cells that could be reliably cultured from biopsied lung tissue. These showed potent regenerative properties when applied to a mouse model of lung fibrosis. In addition, these cells outperformed mesenchymal stem cells therapeutically.

Lobo and his team obtained the stem cells by transbronchial biopsy which involves less risk to the patient than does a standard, chest-penetrating surgical biopsy of lung tissue. Cheng and his associates cultured lung spheroid cells from these samples for therapeutic use.

These cells were found to gather in the lungs of mice when infused intravenously. In a second study, lung fibrosis was induced in rats and then treated with lung spheroid cells. It was found that there was significantly lower lung inflammation and fibrosis in the stem cell treated group compared to placebo.

The treatment was safe and effective even when the lung spheroid cells were derived an unrelated rat donor. "In other words, even if the donated stem cells were 'foreign,' they did not provoke a harmful immune reaction in the recipient animals, as transplanted tissue normally does," he added.

"Our vision is that we will eventually set up a universal cell donor bank," Cheng said.

Cheng, Lobo, and their teams plan to study therapeutic lung spheroid cells in a small group of IPF patients so as to apply for the FDA approval in the future. They are hoping that lung stem cell therapy would be helpful in other lung fibrosis conditions.