April 28, 2015, Reid D’Amoco
In diseases like cystic fibrosis, the lungs undergo constant healing and remodeling due to chronic infections. To better understand the repair mechanisms the lungs go through in diseases like CF and COPD, scientists have paid great attention to studying cellular regeneration. Scientists at the University of Pennsylvania and Duke University have discovered that mature lung cells have the ability to repair and differentiate into other types of cells found in the lungs. The primary author, Dr. Rajan Jain, published his findings earlier this month in Nature Communications.
Type I cells in the lungs are responsible for the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide that occurs during breathing, and type II cells are responsible for secreting surfactants. Pulmonary surfactants are critical to lung function; they prevent drying of the airways, and allow the lungs to expand and contract with each breath. Studies performed in the 1960s and 1970s suggest that type II cells have the ability to regenerate into type I cells in the presence of damage, but Dr. Jain and his team have discovered that type I cells can also give rise to type II cells. These findings suggest that the lungs have much more flexible repairing mechanisms than previously thought.
By exploring these mechanisms in greater detail, researchers can begin to understand how these mature lung cells already present within the body can be used to treat lung damage caused by diseases like CF. In lung diseases like cystic fibrosis and COPD, there is no cure, and patients only control their conditions through medications and treatments. By learning how to influence the lung’s ability to regrow or repair damaged tissue, the course of treatments for those with CF would drastically change.
A large portion of research has focused on the use of stem cells for regeneration. Because stem cells are not yet specialized into their final function, they can still be manipulated to differentiate down varying lineages and turn into different organs. However, this study is not the first attempt to use mature, differentiated cells for repairing damaged organs. Earlier this month, researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and the Victor Chang Institute in Australia found a similar discovery. Instead of lung regenerations, this group of scientists discovered that the heart has a similar regenerative capacity. After the damage seen in a heart attack, the heart muscle experiences what has been described as irreversible damage. However, the team in Israel and Australia found that mature heart cells can be used to regenerate new, healthy heart tissue.
Regardless of the avenue taken to regenerate and repair organs, recent findings and current research are evolving the way we view and treat disease. Conditions like cancer, heart attacks, and cystic fibrosis will one day see great changes in disease prognosis. Managing symptoms may only mask the progression of diseases like cystic fibrosis, but the ability to control the body’s natural repairing process would reverse and halt the damage accumulated by infections.
When these regenerative medicine breakthroughs are matched with the advancements seen with CFTR protein correction, cystic fibrosis patients will have therapies that both heal damaged tissue and correct the underlying condition. The ultimate goal is that patients will obtain a better quality of life and longer life expectancy.