The Latest Research on COPD

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on April 21, 2023
4 min read

Fifty to 60 years ago, there were few treatments for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Doctors were just starting to understand the condition. But research has come a long way since then. And though experts are still working hard to learn more, the past few years have shed new light on COPD and how to treat it. Here’s what you need to know about recent COPD research.

Being physically fit during middle age lowers your risk of COPD, according to a 2019 study in the journal Thorax. What’s more, the Danish research team that published the study found that people who did develop COPD, but who had good heart and lung fitness in their 40s, lived an average of 1½-2 years longer than those who weren’t fit earlier in life.

Diagnosing and treating COPD as early as possible leads to better outcomes. Now, doctors use a device called a spirometer to measure the volume of air a person breathes out. That helps them to diagnose and track how someone with COPD is doing. Spirometry is effective but can’t diagnose COPD in its earliest stages.

Recent research, published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, points to another approach. A research team at the University of Michigan found that a noninvasive technique called parametric response mapping could identify early damage in bronchioles, which are small airways. (Parametric response mapping involves using a computerized tomography (CT) scan to measure inhalation and exhalation.)

In the past, radiologists haven’t been able to see damage in bronchioles. Though parametric response mapping is still being studied, researchers hope doctors will soon be able to use it to spot damage in small airways and diagnose patients with COPD even earlier.

Using a bi-level positive airway pressure (BiPAP) machine at home when you have COPD can reduce your risk of hospital and emergency room visits, and lower your risk of early death, too. That’s the finding from a 2020 Mayo Clinic study published in TheJournal of the American Medical Association. Researchers knew that using a BiPAP in the hospital helped patients, but now they know that it can help keep people with COPD healthier in their homes, too.

COPD symptoms worsen over time. Researchers are looking for ways to halt that. In a 2018 study in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, Australian researchers found that blocking a white blood cell-stimulating protein called G-CSF helped to prevent COPD-related inflammation. The research team says the discovery may lead to a more effective treatment that keeps COPD from getting worse.

Likewise, a 2019 study in Immunology and Inflammation showed that certain compounds in medications that are used to treat cancer may also help clear cells that cause COPD damage. That work was done in lab animals, though -- it’s too soon to know if that approach works in people, too.

Experts know smoking is the top cause of COPD. But some people who don’t smoke or don’t spend time around tobacco smoke still develop COPD. They include one in four people with COPD who have never smoked. Now researchers are beginning to understand why that can happen.

A 2019 study of more than 300,000 people in the European Respiratory Journal found that people who had high exposure to outdoor air pollution were at a greater risk of developing COPD. Researchers believe that pollution speeds up aging and damages the lungs. Likewise, a 2020 Columbia University study of 6,500 adults in JAMA discovered that people who had smaller airways were at a higher risk for COPD, even if they never smoked.

A 2020 study in the journal Cell found that patients with COPD have more abnormal stem cells in their lungs, compared to people who don’t have COPD. The research team, which is from the University of Houston in Texas, says the discovery will help them create medications that target the cells in order to treat the disease. Other COPD researchers are now doing clinical trials to see if using healthy stem cells in lungs can help treat COPD.

People with COPD who’ve never smoked are more than 2½ times more likely to develop lung cancer, compared to nonsmokers without COPD, according to a 2020 study in Thorax. Researchers aren’t sure of the connection, but the discovery could lead to better screening and earlier lung cancer detection in people with COPD.

COPD used to be thought of as mainly a men’s disease, but in the past 2 decades, more women than men have died of COPD in the U.S. Researchers aren’t sure why, but they have some theories. It may be that women are diagnosed with COPD at later stages of the disease. They may also be more vulnerable to the negative effects of things that cause COPD, like tobacco smoke. It’s also unclear whether treatments for COPD work better on men. And of course, the number of women who smoke has risen in recent decades.

But the biggest mystery surrounding COPD is how to cure it. Researchers are still racing to find a way to stop the disease, which remains among the leading causes of death in the U.S.