"Since the dangers of smoking have been emphasized in many ways, and many smokers do not quit even when the most severe symptoms have developed, it is perhaps unlikely that an individual will quit because of a blood test," Miller said. He added that biomarkers and early recognition of disease processes are valuable, however, and "the test may be useful in other settings where deterioration of lung function may be a late finding that perhaps could be prevented."
"This is a new finding in emphysema," Miller said, "but these particles [EMP] have been proposed as potential biomarkers for several other diseases, including sepsis and vasculitis."
Dr. Norman Edelman, chief medical officer of the American Lung Association (ALA), agreed that it's unknown whether the new test would prove to be a quit-smoking aid.
"I cannot predict whether this new test will be an important tool in helping doctors convince their patients to stop smoking," Edelman said. "The ALA recommends that doctors make strong efforts at smoking cessation for all of their smoking patients, as it is proven that doctors' intervention is an effective way to get people to make a serious attempt to quit." How much this test might add to either the quality of the doctors' efforts or the patients' response was uncertain, he noted.
But Schachter added that early detection can make all the difference in managing emphysema.
"If you catch the disease early, while there may be some microscopic damage, you are still way ahead of the game," he said. "And if the person stops smoking and takes proper prevention measures, such as following a healthy lifestyle, you could probably slow down the disease and maintain it at a level as either asymptomatic as it is at the time of discovery or mildly symptomatic."
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