Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a progressive condition of chronic bronchitis, small airway obstruction, and emphysema that represents a leading cause of death worldwide. While inflammation, fibrosis, mucus hypersecretion, and metaplastic epithelial lesions are hallmarks of this disease, their origins and dependent relationships remain unclear. Here we apply single-cell cloning technologies to lung tissue of patients with and without COPD. Unlike control lungs, which were dominated by normal distal airway progenitor cells, COPD lungs were inundated by three variant progenitors epigenetically committed to distinct metaplastic lesions. When transplanted to immunodeficient mice, these variant clones induced pathology akin to the mucous and squamous metaplasia, neutrophilic inflammation, and fibrosis seen in COPD. Remarkably, similar variants pre-exist as minor constituents of control and fetal lung and conceivably act in normal processes of immune surveillance. However, these same variants likely catalyze the pathologic and progressive features of COPD when expanded to high numbers.
Keywords: COPD; chronic lung disease; fibrosis; inflammation; lung; metaplasia; myofibroblasts; neutrophils; p63; single cell cloning; stem cells.
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