Skip to Content

A Smoking Gun for Emphysema

A new blood test may detect signs of the disease before symptoms appear.
March 21, 2011

Researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College have developed a blood test that may detect early signs of emphysema. The test measures levels of tiny endothelial microparticles that slough off from capillary walls into the bloodstream. Scientists found that these circulating fragments are higher than normal in smokers who have evidence of lung destruction but who have yet to develop symptoms of emphysema. The new blood test may be a cost-effective way to catch the disease early.

“It’s easier to get people to stop smoking if they know they’re developing a disease,” says Ronald Crystal, chairman and professor of genetic medicine at the medical school, and lead author of the study. “This test tells people you are developing early emphysema, and it’s like a smoke alarm—when it goes off, it doesn’t necessarily tell you there’s a fire, but you have to pay attention to it.”

Fifteen to 20 percent of smokers develop emphysema, and the longer one smokes, the higher their risk of developing the disease. There is no cure for the disease, which, along with chronic bronchitis, contributes to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. The most effective way to halt emphysema’s progress is to stop smoking early on.

As the disease develops, it causes destruction to alveoli, the many air sacs that branch out from the lungs. These air sacs are the sites of vital gas exchange. When the lungs take in oxygen, it travels to the air sacs, into surrounding capillaries, which supply the rest of the body. Simultaneously, carbon dioxide flows from capillaries to the air sacs, and is expelled through the lungs. In emphysema, this gas exchange is severely cut off, making it difficult to breathe.

Recently, researchers found that in addition to the destruction of alveoli, emphysema may damage the surrounding network of capillaries, causing fragments of the inner lining to shed and get swept up in the bloodstream. “There have been attempts for 30 years to develop a biomarker for emphysema, but with not much success,” says Crystal. “Endothelial microparticles have been looked at for other diseases, like diabetes and heart disease, but no one has ever looked at it for emphysema.”

The findings suggest that the blood test could catch early signs of emphysema that would otherwise go unnoticed. Crystal’s group is planning to perform more tests on larger groups of participants to verify the results.

Steven Shapiro, chairman of the department of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, says that the blood test may one day be easily integrated into a doctor’s office. “We’ve been wanting general practitioners to screen for emphysema, and it’s getting easier, but lots of patients go undiagnosed and untreated, and we don’t have any treatments that are disease-modifying yet,” says Shapiro. “Part of the reason is because we don’t have good biomarkers. So having a biomarker like this would really be beneficial.”

Keep Reading

Most Popular

open sourcing language models concept
open sourcing language models concept

Meta has built a massive new language AI—and it’s giving it away for free

Facebook’s parent company is inviting researchers to pore over and pick apart the flaws in its version of GPT-3

transplant surgery
transplant surgery

The gene-edited pig heart given to a dying patient was infected with a pig virus

The first transplant of a genetically-modified pig heart into a human may have ended prematurely because of a well-known—and avoidable—risk.

Muhammad bin Salman funds anti-aging research
Muhammad bin Salman funds anti-aging research

Saudi Arabia plans to spend $1 billion a year discovering treatments to slow aging

The oil kingdom fears that its population is aging at an accelerated rate and hopes to test drugs to reverse the problem. First up might be the diabetes drug metformin.

Yann LeCun
Yann LeCun

Yann LeCun has a bold new vision for the future of AI

One of the godfathers of deep learning pulls together old ideas to sketch out a fresh path for AI, but raises as many questions as he answers.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.