The official blog of the Lung Institute.
Upon being diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and shortly before his death on February 27th, 2015, Leonard Nimoy tweeted, “Not soon enough.” He was referring to his decision to quit smoking. Nimoy had quit 30 years before, but the damage to his lungs had already been done. Nimoy told Pharrell Williams last year in an interview, “I flunked chemistry in high school.” So, perhaps the elder movie star didn’t fully grasp the long-term harmful effects of smoking in his younger days. He spent the final year of his life urging people to benefit from his mistakes and stop smoking now, before it’s too late. The internationally beloved actor was 82 years old.
COPD is the third-leading cause of death in the United States after heart disease and cancer. Some 12 million people have been diagnosed with COPD, and about another 12 million go undiagnosed. Mr. Nimoy is certainly not the only celebrity known to have developed the disease. Such music and movie icons as Johnny Carson, Dean Martin and Leonard Bernstein suffered from COPD, which ultimately played a roll in each of their deaths.
Bernstein died in 1990, Martin in 1995, Carson in 2005 and Nimoy most recently in early 2015. The treatment for their disease has remained virtually the same over the 25-year period encompassing their deaths.
Unfortunately, there is no known cure for COPD. Many physicians prescribe bronchodilators to help expand airways and allow a greater volume of air into and out of the lungs. It’s also common for a COPD treatment plan to include the use of supplemental oxygen to better regulate the diminishing blood-oxygen levels brought on by poor lung function. Although these treatments are helpful, they do not reverse symptoms. The purpose of these protocols is general symptom management, not disease treatment, and they’ve gone underdeveloped for decades.
Since 1990, we have seen a plethora of medical breakthroughs. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heart disease death rates have dropped by more than 35 percent since 1990. Cancer treatments have also progressed rapidly, and the death rate for cancer sufferers has dropped about 9 percent since the ‘90s. COPD, on the other hand, has risen from the fifth leading cause of death to the third and its mortality rate has increased by over 30 percent in the last 25 years.
Funding for lung disease research has perhaps been limited by a sort of stigma carried by smoking-related illnesses — that patients only have themselves to blame. People deserve the best treatment they can get. We should keep in mind that many started smoking while they were minors, lured in by marketing campaigns that targeted children for decades.
Better Tomorrows are Here
Today, creating some hope for those suffering from COPD, a clinic in the Unites States has developed a treatment using stem cells from the patient’s own body to help combat the disease. The Lung Institute has performed over 1500 treatments since their inception in 2013. Their physicians harvest stem cells through a minimally invasive procedure, process them and then return them to the patient. This can promote healing by directing the cells—and their healing properties—toward the diseased area. The result is not a direct cure for the disease; however, it could slow further progression and bring a normal life back within reach.
Nimoy, to his great credit, took precious time from his last days among us to issue a warning. Many of us smoke in our younger years before the eventual realization that we’re mortal and we need to take care of our health. The trouble with degenerative lung disease is that it’s impossible to know at what point enough damage has been done to the lungs that they will continue to degenerate, eventually resulting in a COPD diagnosis. However, new advancements in treating the disease are finally being practiced and it is possible that COPD may soon see a decline in prevalence similar to that of heart disease and cancer. Regardless of the cause of someone’s lung disease, we all deserve a chance to fight for better tomorrows. With treatments like stem cell therapy, this hope may now become a reality for thousands.