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New Discovery Finds Dynamic Lung Stem Cells

Posted on May 1, 2018


The discovery of new lung stem cells could be critical to treating lung diseases such as asthma, COPD and cystic fibrosis.

The discovery of the glandular myoepithelial cells in the submucosal glands of the lungs by researchers at the University of Iowa may mean new treatments for repairing severely injured lung tissue.

The cells, also known as MECs, can regenerate without limit. Research shows that MECs can self-renew and differentiate into seven different lung cell types found in the airway. The ability of the MECs to develop into so many distinct types of cells makes them the most dynamic lung stem cell known to scientists.

The airway is a critical part of the respiratory system and is made up of a network of tubes that link the nose and mouth to the lungs. The airway is lined with epithelial cells that serve to protect the lungs by guarding the airway against pollutants and other harmful elements found in the air. While these stem cells act as defenders, they are not impervious to damage.

When these stem cells are damaged, local stem cells in the airway activate for repair.

The discovery of the MECs shows the body’s inherent ability to repair itself after injury or illness.

Dr. Joel Singer is a New York physician who uses personal cells to treat a range of health conditions, including lung conditions such as asthma and COPD.

The Iowa researchers also examined how the MECs are activated for repair. They found that a protein transcription factor known as Lef-1 plays a role in waking up dormant MECs and has a part in how MECs regenerate and differentiate. The study authors also found that when the MECs overexpress the Lef-1 transcription factor, the regenerative response of the cells was activated even without injury or illness.

Diseases that affect the airway and lungs are also known as chronic respiratory diseases, or CRDs. These conditions are serious, and in many cases, life-threatening. The causes of these conditions include genetics, exposure to air pollution, and lung irritants including cigarette smoke, chemicals and dust, as well as bacterial and viral lung infections.

One of the most common CRDs is COPD. It is also the third-leading cause of death in the United States, according to the American Lung Association.

Over 11 million Americans have been diagnosed with COPD, but many more may be living with the condition.

Individuals living with COPD often experience chronic symptoms, including wheezing and shortness of breath, dry cough, wet cough, breathlessness and difficulty catching their breath, and tightness in the chest.

Another common symptom of COPD is fatigue.

“Many people living with COPD cannot exercise, participate in regular day-to-day activities or live the life they want without getting winded,” Singer said.

There is no cure for COPD, and treatment for the condition includes oxygen therapy, pulmonary rehabilitation, steroids and special medications that cause dilation of the bronchi, the air sacs of the lungs that convert oxygen to carbon dioxide.

Extreme cases of COPD may require lung transplants.


American Lung Association. How Serious Is COPD. 12 December 2017.

Scicasts. Newly Identified Stem Cells May Hold Key to Regenerative Therapies for Lung Disease. 13 April 2018.


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