Researchers Develop New Technique to Diagnose and Treat COPD

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Michigan researchers have developed a new technique to aid in the diagnosis and treatment of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It offers hope to those who suffer from this incurable disorder or who have family members with it.

A University of Michigan Medical School team developed a technique known as parametric response mapping (PRM), according to Medical News Today. They used PRM to analyze CT lung scans of COPD patients in the COPDGene study sponsored by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI).

COPD is actually a group of diseases. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that these disorders cause airflow blockage and breathing problems. The group includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis and, in some cases, asthma. In 2005, COPD was responsible for 126,005 U.S. deaths in individuals older than 25.

The NHLBI reports that the leading cause of the illness is cigarette smoking. However, breathing other lung irritants like air pollution, chemical fumes, or dust can also be a factor in developing COPD, which is the third-leading cause of death in the United States.

The significance of the University of Michigan research is finding a better way to distinguish between which specific condition a patient has and improving treatment. PRM gives healthcare professionals advanced lung imaging. They can view a patient's CT scans in three-dimensional lung regions over time and identify even small airway disease. The technique was originally developed to indicate the response of brain tumors after treatment.

Researchers overlay a CT scan during a full inhalation with one captured after the patient fully exhaled. By comparing the density of tissue in each image, they are able to create a 3D map of the lungs. The various regions are color-coded: green for healthy, yellow for reduced capability to push out air, and red for more reduced ability. The result is the ability to differentiate abnormalities in small airways from conditions like emphysema that affect a larger area.

PRM is also useful in tracking the progress of COPD over an extended period and showing how it responds to treatment. Although spirometry, a simple breathing test, is still the standard method used to diagnose COPD, it cannot differentiate between various kinds of lung damage linked to the illness.

A family member was surprised to find out that he had COPD. While he was in the emergency room for another problem, the physician referred to an X-ray report from two years earlier. When the doctor asked how long he had had severe COPD, the patient learned he had the illness. And only after a year of repetitive tests and CT scans for a pulmonologist did he learn he had emphysema.

Had the new technique to diagnose and treat COPD been available, his diagnosis probably would have been more precise, and his treatment more personalized.

Vonda J. Sines has published thousands of print and online health and medical articles. She specializes in diseases and other conditions that affect the quality of life.

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