In the year before his recent death from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, beloved Star Trek icon Leonard Nimoy made it his final mission to bring the disease to the forefront of the national discussion.
According to National Institutes of Health statistics, it certainly belongs there. COPD is the third leading cause of death in the United States. About 12 million adults in the U.S. are diagnosed with COPD, and 120,000 die from it each year.
Less than two weeks after fans began mourning news of the actor’s February 27 passing at age 83, scientists announced they’ve discovered a drug that successfully treats COPD in mice. The drug, alendronate, commonly used to treat bone disease such as osteoporosis, reduces swelling in the inflamed lung tissue that often leaves COPD patients gasping for breath.
Nimoy announced his condition in January 2014 to more than a million followers via his Twitter account @TheRealNimoy, signing off with his customary LLAP, the abbreviation for the Vulcan greeting “live long and prosper”: “I quit smoking 30 yrs ago. Not soon enough. I have COPD. Grandpa says, quit now!! LLAP”
Less than three weeks before he died, Nimoy tweeted: “Don’t smoke. I did. Wish I never had. LLAP”
“Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of COPD,” said Spectrum Health pulmonologist Glenn VanOtteren, MD. “Prolonged exposure to air pollution, chemical fumes and dust also may be important contributing factors.”
The term COPD includes two main conditions—emphysema and chronic bronchitis. In emphysema, the walls between the lung’s air sacs are damaged, leading to a reduction in gas exchange. In chronic bronchitis, the lining of the airways is irritated and inflamed, causing the lining to thicken with mucus, and making it hard to breathe.
Symptoms often worsen over time and can limit the ability to carry out even routine activities such as walking, cooking or bathing. But they can also worsen suddenly as a result of illness or infection.
“Currently, millions of people are diagnosed with COPD,” Dr. VanOtteren said. “But many more people may have the disease and not even know it because it develops so slowly–often over the course of a lifetime.”
An additional 12 million adults in the U.S. are thought to have undiagnosed COPD, according to the NIH.
The inflammation of COPD is caused by runaway white blood cells called alveolar macrophages, which reproduce unchecked and produce inflammatory proteins. In a study published March 10 in Nature Communications, scientists attacked the problem with an aerosol version of the osteoporosis drug, alendronate, which is programmed to cause macrophages to self-destruct. They found that within days the treatment had reduced the macrophage population to a point where inflammation was reduced significantly.
“Although preliminary, this appears to be a significant result,” Dr. VanOtteren said. “Further testing of alendronate and similar drugs may one day point to an effective treatment for a disease that affects millions worldwide.”
That would be news to make even a Vulcan smile.