Researchers at Yale School of Medicine have developed a new method for visualizing lung cells affected by chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). COPD is the third leading cause of death in the United States, with 2021 figures indicating 16.4 million individuals have been diagnosed with the disease, although many millions more could be living with undiagnosed COPD.
COPD is caused by smoking or the long-term inhalation of other pollutants. The disease is characterized by inflammation in the lungs, a reduction in lung function, and difficulty breathing. Over time, the disease gets progressively worse and can cause long-term disability and early death. Even though COPD is a leading cause of death worldwide, the cell-specific mechanisms underlying COPD pathobiology are incomplete.
The researchers performed an analysis of single-cell RNA sequencing profiles of lung tissue taken from patients with advanced COPD and control lungs, and then compared gene activity within individual cells in each sample. This allowed them to generate a cell blueprint that showed the cellular and molecular changes that occur in lungs affected by COPD.
Previous studies have suggested COPD is an inflammatory disease that mainly infiltrates immune cells; however, the Yale study suggests genes associated with a predisposition to COPD were mostly expressed in structural cells in the lungs and that the heritability of COPD is driven by structural cells rather than immune cells, and immune cells are just responding to the changes in structural cells in the lungs.
The researchers are now planning further studies to learn how the specific genes they identified in the study contribute to the development of the disease. They also plan to use their new technique to study a more diverse group of individuals with COPD. The researchers hope the insights they gain from their new method could help with the development of novel gene therapies that could be used to halt the progression of the disease. Currently, most treatments for the disease are ineffective and can only ease the symptoms and slow the progression of the disease.
You can read more about the study in the paper – Characterization of the COPD alveolar niche using single-cell RNA sequencing – which was recently published in Nature Communications. DOI: 10.1038/s41467-022-28062-9