In a breakthrough finding, researchers at Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania have discovered a new type of cell that lives deep within human lungs. The cell supposedly plays a key role in lung diseases in humans.

The findings presented in Nature involved analysing human lung tissue to identify the new cells, which they call respiratory airway secretory cells. Physiologically, the cells are stringed in tiny airway branches, near the alveoli structures, deep inside the lungs where exchange of oxygen happens for carbon dioxide.

The researchers demonstrated that respiratory airway secretory cells have stem-like properties that enable them to regenerate other cells that are essential for the normal functioning of alveoli. Researchers also found evidence cigarette smoking and common smoking-related ailment such as COPD can damage the regenerative functions of respiratory airway secretory cells. This implies that fixing the damage could be a good way to treat COPD.

Clinically, COPD is devastating and commonly present, and yet the cellular biology of why or how it develops is not understood. Hence, detection of new cell types, in particular new progenitor cells that are damaged in COPD could really speed the development of new treatments.

Typically, COPD features progressive damage and loss of alveoli, worsened by chronic inflammation. The condition is estimated to affect nearly 10% individuals in some parts of the U.S. and is associated with almost 3 million deaths each year world over. The treatment usually involves prescribing steroid anti-inflammatory drugs combined with or without oxygen therapy, but these therapies can only slow progression of the disease rather than reverse or bring an end to it.

The progress of COPD is partially understood in mice because this standard lab animal lacks key features that are present in human lungs.

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