On Friday, March 6, 2015, Leonard Nimoy, better known as Spock from the beloved television series Star Trek, passed away from end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Unfortunately, his death was all too familiar, as COPD is the third leading cause of death in the United States. A new study, though, may hopefully help to change this statistic.

Scientists noticed that a curious side effect of a popular osteoporosis medication, alendronate, was that it killed off a number of the patient’s macrophages. Knowing this, scientists wondered if the drug might do the same to alveolar macrophages, and in turn be effective in helping COPD patients manage their symptoms.

According to Discover Magazine, in healthy lungs white blood cells called alveolar macrophages work to keep the airways clean by removing debris we may accidentally inhale. In the case of COPD patients, the body creates an excessive amount of these important cells. Although a normal amount of these cells work to keep you breathing clearly, too many of them cause an inflammation of the lung tissue and make it difficult to breathe.

In the recent study, currently published in the online journal Nature Communications, scientists induced emphysema in lab mice. They then gave the mice an aerosol version of the osteoporosis medication. Results were seen very quickly, with the drug succeeding in reducing the number of alveolar macrophages, and in turn minimizing airway swelling over the course of several days. Interestingly, when researchers gave the mice with the same condition the drug in pill form, they observed no changes.

COPD is used to describe any progressive pulmonary disease that makes it hard to breathe; emphysema is the most common. Sadly, there exists no cure for COPD, although there are various medications available that help manage it. COPD is described by the National Institutes of Health as a disability; many sufferers are limited in their ability to do simple activities, such as walking or even cooking a meal.

Smoking is the leading cause of COPD, and Nimoy spent the last years of his life urging others to not repeat his mistake and give up the habit before it's too late. Although Today reported that Nimoy quit smoking 30 years earlier, he still went on to develop the condition that ultimately led to his death.

The results are promising, and although researchers have only taken preliminary steps, they believe their study suggests alendronate, which belongs to a class of drugs known as bisphosphonates, could be useful down the road as a fast-acting non-invasive treatment for the millions currently living with a form of COPD.

Source: Uneno M, Maeno T, Nishimura S, et al. ​Alendronate inhalation ameliorates elastase-induced pulmonary emphysema in mice by induction of apoptosis of alveolar macrophages. Nature Communications. 2015.