Mary Pat "Mayhem" is a force to be reckoned with, but the 73 year radio host old met her match 15 years ago, when she was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD. “I could not get the breath out of the lungs to get more back in.”
The disease is under control and Mary Pat is slowly regaining her lung capacity and strength. She now laughs about the challenges unloading groceries and getting around the house, but that wasn't always the case. "There were a couple years I wasn’t laughing. I really had a hard time getting out the door. Because you can also go into a depression if you’re not moving and your body- it’s not so much an emotional depression as your body gets depressed."
For COPD patients like Mary Pat, just walking up the front steps can seem next to impossible, but new research at Tulane University could soon change that. When a critically ill patient is faced with lung injury, he only has a 60% chance of survival. Dr. Debbie Sullivan's laboratory is investigating the potential of using adult stem cells to treat these types of lung injuries.
Dr. Sullivan says adult stem cells are found in almost every organ of the body and are especially plentiful in bone marrow. They're safer than embryonic stem cells and since they're donated by adults, there's no ethical concern. “We can isolate them from the bone marrow, bring them into the lab, put them in cultures, in dishes where they can divide and expand and over a week or two we then have millions of these cells that we can re-introduce into the body.”
The cells have an amazing ability to seek out the sites of injury. One there, they can suppress inflammatory response or influence cells to divide and repair themselves. Dr. Sullivan's research focuses on acute lung injuries right now, but could be applied to diseases like asthma, COPD and pulmonary fibrosis down the road. It offers patients like Mary Pat a glimmer of hope. “It gets real scary, so when you can finally take that deep breath, its just such a relief.” And there could be many more deep breaths to come. Dr. Sullivan says she expects the first stem cell treatments to hit the market within the next 5 years.