Stem cell therapies for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: current status of pre-clinical studies and clinical trials

J Thorac Dis. 2018 Feb;10(2):1084-1098. doi: 10.21037/jtd.2018.01.46.


Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a respiratory disease that has a major impact worldwide. The currently-available drugs mainly focus on relieving the symptoms of COPD patients. Novel regenerative therapeutic approaches have been investigated with the aim of repairing or replacing the injured functional structures of the respiratory system. We summarized the progress made by regenerative therapies for COPD by analyzing results from both pre-clinical studies and completed clinical trials. These approaches include the application of exogenous stem cells or small molecules to stimulate the regeneration by endogenous lung stem/progenitor cells. Exogenous mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) have been reported to repair the structure and improve the function of the injured respiratory system in COPD models. However, the studies that used MSCs in patients with moderate-to-severe COPD patients did not lead to clear respiratory functional improvements. Exogenous human lung stem cells applied to cryo-injured (CI) lungs of mice have been shown to organize into human-like pulmonary structures, indicating a new property of stem cells that is potentially capable of curing COPD patients. Small molecules like retinoic acid has been shown to lead to regeneration and repair of the damaged lung structures in COPD mouse models probably by activation of endogenous lung stem/progenitor cells. However, retinoic acid or agonists of retinoic acid receptor administered to moderate or severe COPD patients did not improve the density and function of the damaged lung. These novel regenerative approaches have failed in preliminary clinical trials, possibly due to the advanced severity of the disease. Further work should be done to develop the current regenerative approaches for curing patients at different stages of COPD. We suggest that some modifications of the approach in the clinical studies may lead to more successful outcomes of regenerative therapy for COPD.

Keywords: Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD); regeneration; stem cells.

Publication types

  • Review