About 13 million adults in the U.S. have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), according to estimates from the American Lung Association, and another 10 million have evidence of impaired lung function, indicating the number of people with COPD could be much higher. [1] In 2010, nearly 140,000 men and women in the U.S. died as a result of COPD, making it the third leading cause of death. Adult stem cell therapy is a treatment designed to help the body’s natural repair kit work more effectively. Damage to the lungs from COPD cannot be fully reversed; however, this treatment can help manage your symptoms to reduce the effects of further damage.

COPD includes two conditions: emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Historically, emphysema has occurred more often in men than women, but in recent years, the rate of disease in women has been greater. Women also have about twice the risk of developing chronic bronchitis as men. Women are also more likely to die from COPD.

Smoking is the leading cause of COPD and is associated with about 80 percent of COPD-related deaths, but the disease can also be caused by air pollution, secondhand smoke and breathing in dust, chemicals or industrial pollutants. A history of respiratory illnesses during childhood, genetics and lower socioeconomic status have been identified as risk factors for COPD.

For emphysema alone, an inherited disorder called AAT (Alpha1 antitrypsin) deficiency results in decreased production of a “lung protector” protein and significantly increases the likelihood of developing emphysema. [1]


Symptoms of COPD become worse as the disease progresses and may include:

  • Persistent, chronic cough
  • Excessive production of mucus
  • Shortness of breath, even when doing normal activities
  • Wheezing
  • Fatigue
  • Recurrent or frequent respiratory infections
  • Tighness or heaviness in the chest
  • Cyanosis (blueish tinge in the lips or nail beds)

Most people with COPD will experience exacerbations or flareups of their disease when symptoms become worse. When flareups are especially serious and interfere with normal breathing, hospitalization may be required. Flareups are often precipitated by triggers such as respiratory illness or air pollution. [2] [3]


There is no cure for COPD, and treatment is aimed at slowing the progression of the disease, preventing flareups and relieving symptoms. Medicines like bronchodilators, steroids and other drugs help relieve symptoms like shortness of breath and to prevent flareups, and pulmonary rehabilitation helps strengthen lungs to improve overall quality of life. Lifestyle changes like quitting smoking, eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise are also important.

As COPD progresses, oxygen therapy may be needed to compensate for damaged lungs and nutritional therapy is often required to maintain muscle and overall body strength. Many patients with COPD find they can cope better with the disease when they seek out support groups or counseling to help deal with anxiety and depression. [4]

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The primary impetus for stem cell research was initiated when researchers discovered these special cells could differentiate, or transform, into many different types of cells, which implied they might be used to replace cells damaged by disease processes including chronic lung diseases. In fact, studies have demonstrated stem cells’ ability to differentiate into other types of cells not only in a lab setting, but also in living hosts, making them an especially attractive option for the management of ongoing diseases.
As research evolved, studies began focusing on other potential beneficial effects of stem cells, including their ability to modulate abnormal immune responses, promote the growth of other healthy tissues including blood vessels, and decrease the inflammatory effects that are at the heart of many disease processes. In COPD specifically, research has focused on all these benefits in helping restore normal lung function and halt or reverse the disease process.
Early studies have found stem cell injection to be safe in managing COPD, and have also demonstrated the beneficial effects on decreasing inflammation as reflected by the levels of C-reactive proteins (CRPs) in the blood of patients managed with stem cells. [5] C-reactive proteins are excreted by the liver, and they serve as one of the biomarkers used to determine when inflammation is taking place in the body.
One promising phase I clinical trial focusing on emphysema found patients with early stages of the disease did respond positively to the administration of stem cells, with marked improvement in lung function, a slowing down of disease progression and degeneration, and an overall improvement in quality of life. [6] Other studies have also found the primary benefits of stem cell therapy in the management of lung diseases like COPD lies not in the cells’ ability to become new lung tissue, but to support underlying processes of endogenous regeneration and disease modulation to create a healthier environment that promote natural healing. [7]
This breakthrough in regenerative medicine shines a light of hope on those battling this degenerative disease. Improvements have been seen in the following symptoms after management:

  • Reduction of dyspnea (difficult or labored breathing)
  • Increased energy
  • Increase in the ability to walk alone
  • Increase in the ability to perform daily tasks
  • Reduction of reliance on supplemental oxygen
  • Improvements in sleep patterns
  • Enhanced mood

Suggested Reading:

  1. COPD fact sheet. American Lung Association. Available at:
  2. COPD symptoms. WebMD. Available at:
  3. Symptoms, diagnosis and treatment . American Lung Association. Available at:
  4. Treatment overview. WebMD. Available at:
  5. Weiss, DJ, Casaburi, R, Flannery, R, Leroux-Williams, M, Tashkin, DP. A Placebo-Controlled, Randomized Trial of Mesenchymal Stem Cells in COPD. CHEST Journal. 2013;143(6):1590. doi:10.1378/chest.12-2094.
  6. Stessuk T, Ruiz MA, Greco OT, Bilaqui A, Ribeiro-Paes MJ de O, Ribeiro-Paes JT. Phase I clinical trial of cell therapy in patients with advanced chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: follow-up of up to 3 years. Revista Brasileira de Hematologia e Hemoterapia. 2013;35(5):352-357. doi:10.5581/1516-8484.20130113.
  7. Lau, AN, Goodwin, M, Kim, CF, Weiss, DJ. Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine in Lung Biology and Diseases. Molecular Therapy. 2012;20(6):1116-1130. doi:10.1038/mt.2012.37.

A placebo-controlled, randomized trial of mesenchymal stem cells in COPD.

Weiss DJ, Casaburi R, Flannery R, LeRoux-Williams M, Tashkin DP.

Chest. 2013 Jun;143(6):1590-8. doi: 10.1378/chest.12-2094.

Mesenchymal stem cells in the treatment of chronic lung disease.

Wecht S, Rojas M.

Respirology. 2016 Nov;21(8):1366-1375. doi: 10.1111/resp.12911. Review

Therapeutic Potential of Mesenchymal Stem Cells for the Treatment of Airway Remodeling in Pulmonary Diseases.

Nejad-Moghaddam A, Panahi Y, Abdollahpour Alitappeh M, Borna H, Shokrgozar MA, Ghanei M.

Iran J Allergy Asthma Immunol. 2015 Dec;14(6):552-68. Review

Cell-based therapy in lung regenerative medicine.

Yang J, Jia Z.

Regen Med Res. 2014 Apr 11;2(1):7. doi: 10.1186/2050-490X-2-7. Review.

Biological effects and mechanisms of action of mesenchymal stem cell therapy in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Jin Z, Pan X, Zhou K, Bi H, Wang L, Yu L, Wang Q.

J Int Med Res. 2015 Jun;43(3):303-10. doi: 10.1177/0300060514568733. Review.

Pericytes in chronic lung disease.

Rowley JE, Johnson JR.

Int Arch Allergy Immunol. 2014;164(3):178-88. doi: 10.1159/000365051. Review.

Regulation of pulmonary inflammation by mesenchymal cells.

Alkhouri H, Poppinga WJ, Tania NP, Ammit A, Schuliga M.

Pulm Pharmacol Ther. 2014 Dec;29(2):156-65. doi: 10.1016/j.pupt.2014.03.001. Review.

Hematopoietic and mesenchymal stem cells for the treatment of chronic respiratory diseases: role of plasticity and heterogeneity.

Conese M, Piro D, Carbone A, Castellani S, Di Gioia S.

ScientificWorldJournal. 2014 Jan 19;2014:859817. doi: 10.1155/2014/859817. Review

Novel therapeutic strategies for lung disorders associated with airway remodelling and fibrosis.

Royce SG, Moodley Y, Samuel CS.

Pharmacol Ther. 2014 Mar;141(3):250-60. doi: 10.1016/j.pharmthera.2013.10.008. Review.

Concise review: current status of stem cells and regenerative medicine in lung biology and diseases.

Weiss DJ.

Stem Cells. 2014 Jan;32(1):16-25. doi: 10.1002/stem.1506. Review.