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Doctors Study Effects Of Using Nicotine Patches To Fight Lung Disease

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – It sounds like the exact opposite of what you should do: Use a drug found in cigarette smoke to fight lung disease.

But that's just what doctors are doing by testing nicotine against a certain type of hard-to-diagnose lung problem.

As CBS2's Dr. Max Gomez reported, sarcoidosis is a lung disease that mimics other lung problems – from pneumonia, to scar tissue, to even lung cancer.

So you would think that a nicotine patch, normally used to help smokers quit, isn't a great idea. But it turns out, it brings relief to some lung patients.

Jose Serra needed a CAT scan after falling on some ice. That's when his doctor noticed a spot on his lung, which he worried could be cancer.

"The result was that it was no cancer. Good news," Serra said. "The other news was: It's sarcoidosis. It was the final diagnosis."

Sarcoidosis is a growth of inflammatory cells, most likely triggered by inhaling things like pesticides. Left untreated, it can cause severe lung damage and even death.

Unlike most lung diseases, the main symptom isn't shortness of breath, but crippling fatigue.

Serra said he was drinking three energy drinks just to make it through the day. His doctor prescribed a steroid, but the side effects were harsher than the disease itself.

"We can't use them for very long before these side effects occur. And they can be very severe, such as the development of diabetes or high blood pressure and complications related to those – osteoporosis, cataracts, etc.," Dr. Elliott Crouser, of the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center, said.

Instead, Crouser decided to test something that sounds counter-intuitive. He used nicotine patches as a treatment for the lung disease.

"We're hoping that people will actually get a secondary benefit. Not only will their lung disease get better, but they'll also feel more energized and be able to get up and go," he said.

Results from the initial clinical trial were promising, so Crouser is now doing a larger, randomized trial exploring if nicotine patches can be a long-term solution to not only help patients feel better, but reverse the progression of the disease.

It's not entirely clear how nicotine works, Gomez reported. We now know that nicotine is an anti-inflammatory drug without the side effects of steroids. We also know that nicotine is a stimulant, causing adrenaline to be release, which may account for its fatigue-fighting effects.

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