Identifying the Cause of Interstitial Lung Disease

What Causes Interstitial Lung Disease?

A study from Columbia University Medical Center in New York links workplace exposure to vapors, gas, dust, and fumes to an increased likelihood of developing interstitial lung disease (ILD).

ILDs are lung diseases that cause progressive scarring and inflammation of lung tissue. Over time, lung inflammation and scarring build up and lead to shortness of breath, a persistent dry cough, and extreme fatigue. Other effects of the condition include weight loss, high blood pressure, and heart disease.

There are over 100 ILDs, including pneumoconiosis, an occupational lung disease caused by inhaling lung irritants. Two of the best known forms of pneumoconiosis are “black lung,” a disease that develops in coal mine workers, and “brown lung,” a condition that develops in textile and fiber workers.

One of the most common types of ILD is idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, an often fatal lung disease with no known cause.

If left untreated, ILDs can be fatal. Around 40,000 Americans die from ILDs each year, according to the Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation.

Investigating the Source of Interstitial Lung Disease

The Columbia researchers aim to lower the number of ILD fatalities by looking for the sources of very early changes in the lungs that are present before the patient begins showing outward signs of the disease.

The study included 5,702 adult participants from St. Paul, Minnesota; Winston Salem, North Carolina; Baltimore; Chicago; Los Angeles; and New York.

Participants had chest CT scans at the beginning of the study and six years later. Researchers also recorded participant reports of workplace exposure to vapors, gases, dust, and fumes and estimated exposure levels using data provided by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

The results of the study showed that patients with higher levels of exposure showed inflammation and scarring on lung scans. Individuals with high levels of workplace exposure to dust or gas were twice as likely to show early evidence of ILD compared to those exposed to other lung irritants.

While the study showed some connection between workplace exposure and the development of ILD, not all participants in the study developed a disease.

New Treatment for Interstitial Lung Disease

ILDs are progressive, which means the amount of scar tissue in the lungs grows over time. As scar tissue grows, breathing becomes increasingly difficult.

Conventional treatments for ILD include anti-inflammatory medications, steroids and oxygen.

“Patients with interstitial lung disease begin with a cough and end up on oxygen,” said Dr. Bill Johnson, M.D.

Johnson is a physician in Dallas, Texas, who is changing the game for patients with ILDs using stem cell therapy.

Johnson takes stem cells from the patient’s adipose fat tissue harvested through liposuction and deploys them back into the patient through an IV. Some of the cells are also nebulized and inhaled into the lungs.

Once the stem cells have been deployed, they immediately go to work repairing damaged lung tissue and reducing inflammation.

Patients receiving stem cell treatment for their ILDs experience increased oxygen levels, which can lower blood pressure. Other benefits of the treatment include increased stamina and the ability to exercise.

Johnson also uses stem cell therapy to treat people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD). COPD, also known as emphysema, is a debilitating lung condition that kills 120,000 people each year. COPD leaves patients unable to breathe and, like ILDs, increases blood pressure and the patient’s risk of developing heart failure.

“Conventional treatments for COPD are similar to those of other lung diseases, and most patients end up depending on oxygen therapy for survival,” Johnson said.

COPD patients who choose stem cell therapy often see the same benefits as patients with ILDs: increased oxygen intake, increased stamina, and improved mobility.