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Researchers grow new lung air sacs in mice to help humans with emphysema

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Johns Hopkins researchers grow new air sacs in mice to treat emphysema

Emphysema, a form of chronic obstructive lung disease (COPD) is a challenge to treat because the disease destroys the tiny air sacs in the lungs known as alveoli where air exchange takes place. Researchers at Johns Hopkins have found a way to grow new air sacs that could someday help humans with the disease breathe easier.

The scientists gave mice injections of hepatocyte growth factor (HGF) that restored lung function and structure by 17 percent in mice bred to develop emphysema.

“The HGF also was protective, preventing destruction of the alveoli by reducing the oxidative stress that contributes to lung injury,” says Enid Neptune, M.D., associate professor of pulmonary and critical care medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in a press release. “In essence, the HGF was able to block a major enemy of the functioning alveoli.”

Smoking, second hand smoke and exposure to environmental pollution all contributors to chronic obstructive lung disease.

Once the alveoli at the bottom of the lungs are destroyed, the researchers say there is no way to bring them back.

The study is believed to be the first to show HGF might be used as a drug to treat emphysema or even premature infants whose lungs are not fully developed.

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HGF is used to aid wound healing. The researchers previously found hepatocyte growth factor had a role in function of the lung’s air sacs.

Half of the mice with emphysema received the treatment and the other half a placebo. The scientists also tested the effect of HGF on healthy mice that received either placebo or HGF.

Next they developed mice lacking the HGF receptor, finding the lungs failed to develop normally.

When they gave the treatment to young mice the air sacs started to develop normally.

The hope is to find a way to activate the therapeutic components of HGF signaling.

One of the drawbacks of the treatment is that it could promote lung cancer in people that smoke because it stops cells from dying. The researchers are exploring ways to eliminate the cancer causing effect of HGF to make it a targeted treatment for emphysema.

PloS Genetics
“Hepatocyte Growth Factor, a Determinant of Airspace Homeostasis in the Murine Lung”
Carla Calvi et al.
February 14, 2013

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