A Trailblazer Returns: 94-Year-Old Mary Burns Revisits Lundquist Institute for Groundbreaking COPD Study

Marking a special milestone for medical research, Mary Burns, a 94-year-old trailblazer in the battle against COPD, made her return to The Lundquist Institute 

Mary Burns with Dr. Casaburi

Marking a special milestone for medical research, Mary Burns, a 94-year-old trailblazer in the battle against chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), made her return to The Lundquist Institute for Biomedical Innovation at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center (TLI). Fifteen years ago, Burns was the first to join the COPDGene study — a cutting-edge investigation seeking to unravel the complexities of COPD. As she walked through the doors of the Respiratory Research Center, it was more than just a routine check-up; it marked the inauguration of "Phase 4" of this pivotal study.

The COPDGene study, generously funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), embarked on its journey in 2008 with the quest to dissect the causes of COPD. This condition, also known as emphysema and chronic bronchitis, afflicts approximately 30 million Americans, with half of them unaware of their diagnosis. Smoking has been identified as a primary culprit, yet even those who quit in their prime are not immune from developing symptoms in their later years.

At the heart of the study is a burning question: Why do some smokers succumb to COPD while others do not? This mystery has spurred researchers to delve into the genetic labyrinth, looking for clues hidden within our DNA. The study initially recruited over 10,000 participants from across the United States.  It has flourished over the years, earning three five-year NIH renewals. This has allowed for the continued observation of the original participants, shedding light on the progression of COPD.

Dr. Richard Casaburi, a senior investigator in his 50th year at the Lundquist Institute, leads the team that recruited over 760 participants and followed them over the years.  That Burns was the first study recruit was no accident.  Her remarkable career as the leader of the Pulmonary Rehabilitation program at Little Company of Mary Hospital in Torrance made her an icon in respiratory research. Even after retirement, her advocacy for pulmonary rehabilitation did not wane, and she remains a fervent supporter of ongoing research efforts within the Respiratory Research Center at TLI.

The COPDGene study has shown strong productivity, marked by over 500 scientific papers and a wealth of ongoing sub-studies. As "Phase 4" commences, with Burns leading the way, the medical community awaits the next breakthrough in the quest to conquer COPD.