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Key DiscoveryEarly Damage in the Small Airways of COPD Patients

Jul 5, 2018

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a group of chronic lung diseases characterized by limitations in airflow, and is the leading cause of death and hospital admissions in BC and Canada. Previously, it was believed that only very severe COPD patients exhibited tissue damage within the small airways in the lungs. These patients often have little to no symptoms, so it was believed their lungs were relatively undamaged.

In this landmark study, Dr. Tillie Hackett and her team of researchers discovered for the first time that significant tissue damage can be detected in the smallest airways within the lung in patients with mild and moderate COPD. The researchers were able to image airways <0.5 mm in diameter using an innovative, ultra high-resolution, micro computed tomography (CT) imaging instrument at HLI, with specialized software developed by the team. This equipment was purchased through funding from CFI, BCKDF, and St. Paul’s Foundation.

This CIHR-funded study underscores the importance of studying the small airways in early stages of COPD to improve our understanding of the disease and to develop targeted therapies. Currently, COPD patients are not given any medications until more advanced disease develops, and the medications available are only symptom-relieving. This research suggests that COPD patients should be treated at the earliest stages when the disease may be more responsive to therapy. This finding will also revolutionize the way clinical trials for new COPD drugs are conducted. Evaluating new drugs on patients with early disease may yield more successes and accelerate the development of effective COPD therapies.

“Now that we know the severity of the damage, we need to look at earlier intervention to ensure the best outcomes for COPD patients.”

Dr. Tillie Hackett, HLI PI and senior author of the paper

This study was also featured in UBC News, BC Medical Journal, and the Vancouver Sun, and was selected as a UBC Faculty of Medicine Top 10 Highlight of 2018.