A potential cancer drug also could be used to treat a deadly lung condition triggered by blood poisoning, Scottish scientists believe.
Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) is a major cause of death in intensive care units, caused by an influx of a certain type of immune cell into the lungs during an infection.
A team of experts from Edinburgh University have found that a drug, which targets key immune cells, could help to curb excessive inflammation in the lungs that is linked to the condition.
The researchers say more studies are needed into the drug’s suitability, but their findings from tests on patients’ cells are promising.
Lead researcher Professor Adriano Rossi, chair of respiratory pharmacology at Edinburgh University, said: “Our findings suggest that this drug warrants further investigation as a potential therapy for Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome, which is a devastating condition that kills up to half of those affected.”
There are no existing treatments for the condition - known as shock lung - which causes severe breathing difficulties, confusion and tiredness.
Researchers found that key immune cells, called neutrophils, are brought in by the body to tackle the infection but these cells can also cause serious damage to the lung.
These cells tend to self-destruct in a controlled way at the end of an ordinary infection, so they do not damage healthy tissue.
However the cells survive for longer in ARDS patients, which is thought to contribute to a worsening of the condition.
Edinburgh scientists found that treating cells taken from patient blood samples with a drug called AT7519 helped to restore their normal self-destruct process.
After 20 hours of treatment in the lab, the cells behaved like those of healthy people.
The findings suggest that this medicine could help to resolve inflammation in the lung in ARDS patients, according to the study published in the Thorax journal.
Up to half of people who develop the condition do not survive as there are currently no effective treatments.
Patients are usually placed on a ventilator to help them breathe until the inflammation resolves.
The AT7519 medicine belongs to a family of drugs called cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitors and is currently being trialled as a cancer therapy.
Doctors recently warned about ‘bagpipe lung’ after a patient died of an inflammatory lung condition thought to be caused by inhaling mould from inside his bagpipes.
The 61-year-old had lung damage consistent with ARDS, a post mortem found.