North Carolina Advances in Stem Cell Therapy for Lung Diseases Could Lead to Clinical Trial Soon

North Carolina Advances in Stem Cell Therapy for Lung Diseases Could Lead to Clinical Trial Soon

University of North Carolina Health Care researchers have made strides toward a stem cell treatment for lung diseases such as pulmonary fibrosis, COPD, and cystic fibrosis.

In fact, they are discussing the start of clinical trials with regulatory authorities.

The team discussed its work in two recent studies. One proved that it is possible to isolate lung stem cells with a relatively non-invasive procedure. The other showed that stem cells reduce fibrosis in rats with pulmonary fibrosis.

The first study, in the journal Respiratory Research, was titled “Derivation of therapeutic lung spheroid cells from minimally invasive transbronchial pulmonary biopsies.” The second, in Stem Cells Translational Medicine, was “Safety and Efficacy of Allogeneic Lung Spheroid Cells in a Mismatched Rat Model of Pulmonary Fibrosis.”

“This is the first time anyone has generated potentially therapeutic lung stem cells from minimally invasive biopsy specimens,” Dr. Jason Lobo, director of the university’s lung transplant and interstitial lung disease program, said in a press release. He was co-senior author of both studies.

“We think the properties of these cells make them potentially therapeutic for a wide range of lung fibrosis diseases,” added Dr. Ke Cheng, who led the studies with Lobo. He is an associate professor in North Carolina State University’s Department of Molecular Biomedical Sciences.

The research team had previously homed in on stem and support cells they could isolate from a lung tissue sample and grow in a lab. The tissue formed sphere-like structures in a lab dish, prompting the scientists to call them lung spheroid cells.

In 2015, the team showed that these cells had potent regenerative properties in animals with lung diseases. In fact, the stem cells they cultivated outperformed another type called mesenchymal stem cells.

Their latest project involved gathering lung spheroid cells from patients with various lung diseases. They used a procedure called a transbronchial biopsy that can be done in a doctor’s office.

“We snip tiny, seed-sized samples of airway tissue using a bronchoscope,” Lobo said. “This method involves far less risk to the patient than does a standard, chest-penetrating surgical biopsy of lung tissue.”

From this tiny piece of airway, researchers gathered stem cells, then allowed them to multiply — because stem cell treatments require infusions of millions of such cells.

When they injected the cells intravenously into mice, they discovered that most found their way into the animals’ lungs.

“These cells are from the lung, and so in a sense they’re happiest, so to speak, living and working in the lung,” Cheng said.

The team then tested the treatment in rats exposed to a chemical that triggers lung fibrosis. The lung spheroid cells gave rise to healthy lung cells, reducing both inflammation and fibrosis in the animals’ lungs.

“Also, the treatment was safe and effective whether the lung spheroid cells were derived from the recipient’s own lungs or from the lungs of an unrelated strain of rats,” Lobo said. “In other words, even if the donated stem cells were ‘foreign,’ they did not provoke a harmful immune reaction in the recipient animals, as transplanted tissue normally does.”

The researchers said that in humans their goal would be to use patients’ own stem cells to minimize the risk of immune reactions. But because large quantities of cells are needed, it might be necessary to gather cells from healthy volunteers or organ donation networks as well.

“Our vision is that we will eventually set up a universal cell donor bank,” Cheng said.

The team is in discussions with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration aimed at starting the first human study by year’s end. The first trial would include a small group of pulmonary fibrosis patients. The team also hopes their spheroid stem cell therapy will help patients with other lung diseases.


  1. Lisa Ann Balistrieri says:

    I suffer from bronchiectasis that was caused by several years with NTM disease. Could this stem cell research benefit me?
    Thank you

    • Gary J Foutz says:

      Hello, My Name is Gary Foutz. I live at 5910 Dry Hollow Rd Salem Va.Phone 540-384-2689.
      My Pulmonary Dr at The Salem V.A.Hospital told me I have Pulmonary Fibrosis from possibly using a drug called Amiodarone for a heart palpitations and was on it a good while.
      I would be interested in a clinical trail that you may have soon.

  2. Carolyn Schmidt says:

    I too suffer from bronchiectasis – caused by many years of smoking and bronchitis infections. Have heard the Lung Institute in Tampa is doing stem cell research but my pulmonary said the therapy is not quite perfected. Will be anxious to hear more about this.

  3. John Lee says:

    My wife suffers from non-CF(cystic fibrosis) bronchiectasis.
    Will the stem-cell treatment reverse the scarring? thank you.

  4. Magdalena Kegel, PhD says:

    Many of you wonder how to go about to participate in the trial. At the moment, there is no information on who will be eligible for participation since the researchers are still discussing with regulatory authorities. Once that information becomes available, we will report it.

    It is also difficult to speculate about the potential benefits in humans before a trial. Researchers hope that it will, at least, reduce scarring and fibrosis.

    • Jeanette Atwell says:

      I am very interested in being a part of the clinical study, as I could not afford the price of Stem Cell Therapy offered in Florida at different clinics. I have participated for a period of 12 months in a clinical study involving medicine for COPD. It was very beneficial !!
      Jeanette Atwell

  5. Susan Heckman says:

    Watching this with interest from Durham, NC. My focus is women with the rare disease, LAM (Lymphangioleiomyomatosis). Many of us with LAM take mTOR inhibitors (Rapamycin, Everolimus)to slow progression. Thanks for the article Dr Kegel! Best Wishes to UNC for getting this study funded and running!

  6. Annette Baker says:

    My 82 yr old husband was diagnosed with IPF in April 2009 by our local pulmonologist, which was confirmed by
    Dr Keith Mayer, UW Hospital, Madison, WI. He was given 28 yrs – 2 yrs. However, he continues to play regularly with a 16 pc swing band, a 12 pc church band & another smaller church band. He also makes/paints tin soldiers & dioramas up to 10 hrs a day. I believe his expiration date needs to be revised. Would he qualify for your next IPF research study?

    • Magdalena Kegel, PhD says:

      Hi Michael,
      I don’t have any information on the potential to treat PAH, unfortunately. But the research is still in an early stage. We will report on any updates as they become available.

  7. Christine garlock says:

    I have ipf an interested in the nc drug trial when it is open. Will this site be keeping up to date on the latest info coming out?

    • Magdalena Kegel, PhD says:

      Hi, Christine and others wondering about the coming trial.

      When researchers release more information about this project we will be sure to report on it.

  8. Mark Thompson says:

    I have very severe COPD and wonder why a clinical trial is not offered for this. COPD is the 3rd leading cause of death in the US so I feel this should be a priority for stem cell clinical trials. That being said I would be very interested in participating in any stem cell clinical trials for COPD.

  9. Jim Sandford says:

    I would be interested in participating in this clinical trial. I am 65 with emphysema, smoked for 30+ years but quit 17 years ago.

  10. Ronald C. MacNeil says:

    I am an active 77 year old male diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis in September 2017. In early July 2017 I was walking approximately one mile with no oxygen and with very little effort. On September 15, 2017 I was not able to was not able to walk short distances with cotinuous flow oxygen set at 8 lpm and was unable to keep my oxygen level above 88. I would be willing to travel anywhere on the east coast to participate in a clinical trial for my condition.

  11. Kenneth Prater says:

    Age 71,Level 4 COPD/AFIB on occasion. I have the PulmonX Zephyr Valve implants 2 ea in ULL. One failed causing pneumothorax which healed and the valve was replaced several weeks later. Continue to work thru Pulmonary rehab. The Medical Group was UC DAVIS Pulmonary Critical Care in Sacramento,California. Attending physician Dr. Brian M. Morrissey,MD and Dr. Ken Y. Yoneda,M.D. Have had communication with Dr. Wei Zuo,Shanghai East Hospital Shanghai,China about stem cell research study.He has asked if I’m ready to come to China. I believe a great deal of discovery and benefit is coming soon with respect to rare ciliated epithelial cells and Lung Stem/Progenitor Cells for the Autologous Lung Stem Cell Transplantation in Patients with ILD. Love to be a part of it. What it does not do for me may surely help someone else. Thats the bottom line. Move to NC,sure why not.
    Ken Prater

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