December 2, 2009
Smoldering Inflammation Persists In Smokers’ Lungs
The persistence of inflammation in the lungs of smokers and even ex-smokers creates an environment that encourages emphysema, a disease that makes breathing more and more difficult.
Why some people have this problem and others do not remained a mystery until a consortium of researchers led by Baylor College of Medicine found that the answer lies with certain dendritic cells in the lung.
Dendritic cells are antigen-presenting cells, meaning they show proteins to the immune system to provoke a response. In this case, that "presentation" misfires, provoking production of destructive T-cells that attack a key protein called elastin, leading to death of lung tissue and emphysema. A report of their work appears in the current issue of Science Translational Medicine.
Two million Americans have emphysema
The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute estimates that 2 million Americans have emphysema, most of them over the age of 50. People with emphysema find it harder and harder to breathe as the lungs' air sacs or alveoli are destroyed, causing holes in the lung and blocking airways. They have difficulty exchanging oxygen as their lungs become less elastic. Cigarette smoking is the greatest risk factor for the disease that contributes to as many as 100,000 deaths each year.
In previous work, Dr. Farrah Kheradmand, associate professor of medicine "“ pulmonary and immunology at BCM, and colleagues had shown that T-helper cells and some enzymes in the lung destroyed tissue in the lungs of emphysema patients. She credits BCM graduate student Ming Shan with pushing the project forward with the work in the current report.
Subset of cells
She and her colleagues found that a subset of antigen-presenting cells in the lung are programmed to turn peripheral blood cells into the cells that are activated and are associated with autoimmune inflammation. They also found that elastin peptides can activate T-cells "“ a sign that elastin is acting as an auto-antigen.
"This has implications for something that is important and biologically relevant," said Kheradmand. "Smokers are also at risk for diseases of the blood vessels such as the carotid artery and aorta. These blood vessels are also enriched in elastin. We believe that particular cells circulating in the body could react to elastin molecules at these remote sites."
Explains complications of smoking
This may help explain some of the cardiovascular and other complications associated with smoking tobacco. For example, skin is rich in elastin. The skin of smokers loses elasticity.
"We believe that this systemic inflammation that may initially affect the lung could also affect other parts of the body," she said.
She and fellow senior author Dr. David Corry, professor of medicine "“ pulmonary and immunology at BCM, and her colleagues used lung tissue taken from emphysema patients who were undergoing surgery anyway to determine which cells are present and their functions in the lung.
"These live cells are the center of what we studied," she said.
She and her colleagues found that some patients did not have the elastin-specific cells in their lungs, even though they had smoked.
"The Holy Grail is to find smokers who are destined to develop auto-reactive cells before the disease is fully manifested," she said. She hopes to develop a test for T-cells that attack elastin that could be used in the doctor's office. However, she said, such a test would only identify patients at higher risk for emphysema and other elastin-associated diseases. It would not identify people at higher risk of lung cancer, for example.
"It is not a good excuse to smoke or continue smoking," she said.
Others who took part in the study include Han-Fang Cheng, Li-zhen Song and Luz Roberts of BCM, Linda Green and Joan Hacken-Bitar of the Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Houston, Joseph Huh and Faisal Bakaeen of MEDVAMC and BCM, Harvey O. Coxson and Claudine Storness-Bliss of Vancouver General Hospital in British Columbia, Canada, Mahesh Ramchandani of The Methodist Hospital in Houston, and Seung-Hyo Lee of the Graduate School of Medical Science and Engineering, Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, Daejeon, South Korea.
Funding for this work came from the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the American Heart Association.
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