The National Institutes of Health has recently joined up with Medicare to sponsor a new study at the University that will look into why some smokers develop chronic obstructive pulmonary disease while others don’t.

COPD is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, affecting the lives of more than 12 million people. While cancer and chronic heart disease mortality rates have decreased, COPD is one of the few major chronic diseases in which the mortality rate has increased, doubling in the last 30 years.

University researchers hope that through this study they will not only be able to stem the increase but also reverse the trend.

Fernando Martinez, lead investigator for the study and director of the University’s Pulmonary Diagnostic Services, said the collaboration between Medicare and the NIH exemplifies the project’s significance.

“The government is a soloed arena,” Martinez said. “Medicare is the largest insurance company in the United States. The NIH has typically been both an investigational agency that looks into biological problems as well as patient problems.”

“When the two of them come together, it’s a very unique and important paradigm,” he said.

Martinez said the study is not seeking to replicate COPD studies conducted in the early 1980s, which found that people who have low oxygen levels at rest should get more oxygen via prescription.

The new study — The Long-term Oxygen Treatment Trial (LOTT) — is testing whether oxygen is a positive or negative treatment for COPD patients whose oxygen levels are adequate when resting but drop when exercising.

The study will look at the effect of a 24-hour oxygen therapy on COPD patients.

The University is just one of more than 21 sites nationwide being used for testing, four of them in Michigan: William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, the Veterans Administration Medical Center, the Henry Ford Hospital and the University of Michigan Health System.

Martinez said the project first officially began a year and a half ago, but just recently began patient treatment. The study is expected to be completed in 2013.

According to Martinez, the new study is an example of President Barack Obama’s new health care plan, which seeks to optimize therapy with evidence.

“This is an ideal way to do it — what you have is an insurance company working with an investigational agency to look into a very big problem,” Martinez said. “The investigation agency is running the study while the insurance company, Medicare in this case, is paying for it.”

As of the beginning of this month, close to 150 people have been screened nationwide, while only 47 people have passed the screening, meaning they have the target oxygen level researchers are looking for in the study’s participants.

Here at the University, 25 people have been screened and only four people have passed.

“It’s hard to find people with the specific oxygen number, an oxygen saturation level between 89 and 93 percent, that also have Medicare,” Clinic Coordinator Catherine Meldrum said.

Other screening factors include being at least 40 years old, having smoked at least 10 pack-years — or 73,000 cigarettes in a lifetime — being willing not to smoke while being a part of the study and having either Medicare A and B or an insurance plan that will cover the cost of the oxygen and breathing tests.

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