Understanding early development of COPD in younger people

A UCLA trial is enrolling smokers ages 30 to 55

Who will develop chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, better known as COPD? Researchers at UCLA are now recruiting participants for a study to help answer that question.

COPD is a group of lung diseases that make it difficult to breathe. About 12 to 16 million people in the U.S. have COPD, with smoking the biggest risk factor for development.

COPD doesn’t always look or act the same among people who have it, says Igor Barjaktarevic, MD, PhD.

“Sometimes there’s predominant damage to the lung tissue called emphysema, sometimes the airways are more affected which leads to chronic bronchitis,” he says. “Some patients have recurrent infections, others suffer from compromised immune responses and persistent inflammation. And even with the same degree of lung damage, some have a good physical reserve, while others are very symptomatic with compromised quality of life.”

Understanding lung health has long been of interest for Dr. Barjaktarevic, who is the principal investigator for the study. He particularly wants to look at COPD in younger people who are at risk – a frustrating gap in the current research.

Defining the goal

“If COPD has damaged the airways and lung tissues, there is a limited potential to significantly improve the lung function,” Dr. Barjaktarevic says.

Most studies of COPD have focused on the late stages. But when the disease is advanced, there’s often not much that can be done beyond managing the symptoms.

Previous research has found that smokers without a formal diagnosis of COPD often have symptoms similar to those with COPD, such as a cough and phlegm. That’s because COPD exists on a spectrum and slowly develops over time – there’s no magical point when someone flips from not having the disease to having it.

By looking at people who are at risk for COPD when they’re younger, researchers may be able to better understand how it develops. This can lead to strategies for preventing and treating it.

“The idea is to be able to move from a one-size-fits-all concept, which may not be ideal for a heterogeneous problem such as COPD, and allow for a more personalized approach with the ultimate goal of developing the precision medicine,” Dr. Barjaktarevic says.

Becoming a study volunteer

For this important observational study, which will aim to follow participants over years, researchers are looking for volunteers who are smokers between the ages of 30 and 55. All participants will get a comprehensive checkup of their lung function. About 25% will have a bronchoscopy, a procedure that looks inside the airways using a small tube.

Researchers will be looking at more than 250 biomarkers. They include everything from blood sampling to fine upper and lower airways specimen collections, from studies evaluating lung function to sophisticated imaging techniques. They’ll use this data to see what insights they can glean about the progression of COPD.

For volunteers, there may be opportunities to take part in more studies in the future. There’s also the added benefit of having experts collect data about your health. If researchers see anything that’s off, they’ll be sure to follow up with your doctor.

“We really try to make sure the studies we are doing — while primarily focused on understanding the disease — offer additional benefits to our patients in terms of health surveillance,” Dr. Barjaktarevic says. 

Learn more about the SPIROMICS Study of Early COPD Progression and sign up here.

Related:

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How to protect yourself from the coronavirus if you have COPD

When air pollution becomes a health equity issue


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