Directions for Future Research

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: July 2015.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) affects the lives of many millions of people around the world. Researcher and scientists have made huge steps in understanding the disease and how to treat it, but there is much more work to be done.

There are three main directions for future research about the disease:

  • Gaining more knowledge about all possible causes of COPD
  • Discovering new and better treatment options for people with COPD
  • Finding new ways to help prevent people from getting COPD

What are researchers trying to learn about the causes of COPD?1

It is well known that tobacco smoking is the main cause of COPD. About 90% of people with COPD get the disease because of lung damage from smoking. However, not all people who smoke will get the disease during their lives: about 1 in 5 smokers get COPD. Scientists are working to find out why some smokers get the disease, but others do not.

The second most common cause of COPD is indoor air pollution - breathing in irritants at home or in the workplace. Breathing polluted air over a long period of time causes about 20% of COPD cases. But many people who breathe in those irritants never get COPD, and we do not know why. As with smoking, researchers will try to discover why some people get COPD while other people, who are exposed to the same kinds of irritants, never get it.

Scientists already know about one kind of genetic cause for COPD. People born with a condition called AAT deficiency are much more likely to get COPD whether or not they smoke. However, some people still get COPD even though they don’t have AAT deficiency, and have never smoked or breathed irritants. For this reason, researchers think that there may be other genetic causes for COPD that are passed down through families.

Understanding more about the causes of COPD is useful for two key reasons:

  • Knowing exactly how COPD is caused can help develop new and better ways to treat it.
  • Knowing all the different causes of COPD can help us learn how to be more successful in preventing it.

What kind of treatment options are researchers trying to discover?1,2

The number-one goal of research about COPD treatment is to find a cure for the disease. Today, there is no way to cure the disease or to completely stop it from getting worse. Scientists are trying to find ways to stop COPD lung damage, and maybe even reverse damage that has already been done. For instance, this might involve finding some way to re-grow the air sacs in the lungs that are destroyed by COPD.

There are already many ways to treat COPD symptoms and to slow the disease’s progress. However, scientists are always trying to discover new medicines and therapies that are better than the ones we currently have. There are many drugs being developed and tested for future use.

Other new areas of research about how to treat COPD include:

  • How to help COPD patients sleep better
  • Learning more about what causes COPD flare-ups, and how to treat them
  • How to monitor the progress of COPD more closely
  • The best ways to use oxygen therapy

How are researchers finding ways to prevent COPD?

The best way to prevent COPD is to better educate people about it. Many people may have beliefs about COPD that are not true. For instance, they might think that COPD will go away if they stop smoking. Making people more aware of the real dangers of smoking and COPD might inspire more people to quit.

Many people might not realize that bad air quality in the workplace can cause COPD – it is not just a smoker’s disease. Another prevention plan is to make sure that workers and employers in high-risk workplaces have up-to-date information about COPD and ways to protect their lungs.

Researchers are working to find new and more effective ways to prevent smoking. For instance, they are trying to find out the best way to keep young people from starting the habit by testing out different kinds of smoking-prevention programs in schools

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