Actor Leonard Nimoy, of Star Trek fame, recently announced that he has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a lung disease that comprises emphysema and chronic bronchitis. COPD is usually thought to be almost exclusively caused by smoking tobacco.
While smoking is clearly a major etiologic factor responsible for the development of this condition, fascinating work--much of it done by Dr. Allison Morris at Pitt, has shown that a fungal infection may also play an important--and independent--role. This fungus, Pneumocystis jiroveci, usually headlines as the most common opportunistic infection that US HIV patients contract. However, this fungus also has the ability to colonize non-HIV infected individuals.
Colonization rates of this fungus are higher in COPD patients and the higher the colonization density, the more severe the COPD.
Hypotheses regarding how this infection might be involved with COPD are centered on the inflammation its presence may trigger and the subsequent lung damage that occurs.
If COPD is indeed proved to be an infectious disease, it may translate into novel treatments that could decrease the considerable burden of this disease.