New Hope for COPD Patients: Early Trials Show Promise in Lung Cell Transplants

Pioneering research from Tongji University in Shanghai unveils the promising potential of transplanting patients’ own lung cells as a curative treatment for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Supported by the Regend Therapeutics Ltd. laboratory, findings presented at the 2023 International Congress of the European Respiratory Society (ERS) suggest a foreseeable path to repairing damaged lung tissues in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) using their very own cells.

Lung Tissue With COPD

Lung Tissue With COPD. Credit: Yale Rosen

The Global Challenge of COPD

Every year, COPD claims approximately three million lives globally, and its death toll only seems to rise with increasing air pollution. This severe respiratory illness gradually damages lung tissue, and tragically, the currently available treatments cannot mend these affected tissues—only alleviate the symptoms. There’s an immense, pressing demand for a curative solution.

Read Also: Guide to Lung Function Tests: Types, Procedures, and Indications for Diagnosis, Monitoring, and Assessment of Respiratory Conditions

Phase I Clinical Trial: A Glimmer of Hope

This small Phase I clinical trial, involving 17 COPD patients, offers compelling evidence. Participants reported not only better breathing capabilities post-treatment but also showcased the ability to walk longer distances and voiced an overall improved quality of life after receiving this experimental autologous lung cell transplantation.

Stem Cells & Progenitor Cells: The Underlying Science

To combat COPD, the research team honed in on stem cells, renowned for their capacity to differentiate into any cell type, and progenitor cells, descendants of stem cells that can only differentiate into cells of the same tissue or organ. The body naturally uses the latter to repair and replace damaged tissues. Previous endeavors employing stem cells in COPD treatments have yielded inconsistent results. However, lead researcher Professor Wei Zuo and his team at the Tongji University School of Medicine investigated how P63+ lung progenitor cells could be leveraged to heal the tissues ravaged by COPD. Prior preclinical studies had indicated the potential of these P63+ cells to heal damaged epithelial tissue in the alveoli, the tiny air sacs in the lungs crucial for respiration.

Read Also: Organ Transplantation: Researchers Change Blood Type A Donor Lungs to Universal Type O Blood Lungs

In-depth Analysis of the Phase I Trial Results

The Phase I trial meticulously tested the efficacy and safety of harvesting P63+ progenitor cells from the lungs of 20 COPD patients, culturing them to generate millions more in a laboratory, and then transplanting them back to rejuvenate the lungs. Notably, 35% of the participants were diagnosed with severe COPD, while 53% had extremely severe COPD. Using a small catheter equipped with a brush, researchers collected progenitor cells, cloned them to generate up to a billion additional cells, and then transplanted them back into the lungs via bronchoscopy. Out of the 20 participants, 17 received the treatment, and 3 acted as control. Throughout 24 weeks, participants were monitored to gauge the treatment’s tolerance and effectiveness. The trial revealed that:

  • The cell therapy was well-tolerated by all participants.
  • After 12 weeks, treated participants witnessed their lung’s median diffusion capacity, indicative of effective air exchange between the lungs and bloodstream, rise from 30% pre-treatment to 40%. By 24 weeks, this figure nudged slightly to 40.3%.
  • The median distance covered in a 6-minute walk test improved from 410 meters pre-treatment to 447 meters post 24 weeks.
  • The median quality of life score decreased by seven points, signifying an actual improvement.
  • Remarkably, for two patients with mild emphysema, a typically permanent and progressive lung injury, the transplantation managed to repair the lung damage.

Read Also: Study Reveals Aspirin’s Potential in Shielding Lungs from Air Pollution’s Harmful Effects

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, this preliminary trial underscores the promising potential of P63+ progenitor cell transplantation, not just in enhancing lung function in COPD patients but also in alleviating common symptoms like breathlessness, reduced exercise capacity, and persistent coughing. This therapeutic strategy offers hope for restoring a high quality of life for many suffering from severe COPD and, crucially, reducing the risk of death.

The team has already slated a Phase II trial, aiming to assess the efficacy of autologous lung cell transplantation across a broader patient spectrum.

“With more doctors and patients joining our clinical trial,” says Professor Zuo, “we can expedite the treatment’s development so it can reach patients sooner. Moreover, we’re exploring a similar therapeutic strategy for patients with deadly pulmonary fibrotic diseases, especially idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. We’re optimistic about rolling out the treatment for clinical use within the next 2 to 3 years.”


European Respiratory Society. (2023, September 11). Transplanting patients’ own lung cells offers hope of ‘cure’ for COPD. EurekAlert!. Retrieved September 16, 2023, from

ERS (European Respiratory Society). (n.d.). Autologous transplantation of P63+ lung progenitor cells for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease therapy W. Zuo(Shanghai, China): a translational perspective. Retrieved 09/16/2023, from



Want to Stay Informed?

Join the Gilmore Health News Newsletter!

Want to live your best life?

Get the Gilmore Health Weekly newsletter for health tips, wellness updates and more.

By clicking "Subscribe," I agree to the Gilmore Health and . I also agree to receive emails from Gilmore Health and I understand that I may opt out of Gilmore Health subscriptions at any time.