Collagen- and connective tissue-making cells in lungs affected by IPF begin to look and act more like muscle cells, he continued. These cells, called fibroblasts, in essence become supercharged, secreting more connective tissue proteins and fibers than normal and becoming more resistant to killing, in a way similar to cancer cells.
"Looking at the genes as if they are molecules in a computer program, you can see where in IPF, the program is distinct and very different from normal," said Dr. Kaminski. "With this new direction of research, we will be trying to reverse the process."
The warm autopsy program also has a bonus of strengthening connections between patients, their family members and the health professionals who care for them, said Ms. Lindell. "This program is one example of how a patient can make a difference and initiate something that will help others. It conveys a message that the team respects patients' wishes and allows them to contribute, even in their last days."