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Some smoking rodents may help researchers come up with new treatments for emphysema, a serious lung disorder that affects almost two million Americans.

Scientists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have created mice that are protected against the lung disease despite continued exposure to secondhand cigarette smoke. If researchers can find a way to imitate that protection in people, they might be able to prevent damage done by the disease.

Emphysema occurs when elastic fibers in the lungs break down. The lungs over-inflate, making it hard to breathe deeply. Emphysema is almost always caused by smoking.

But the St. Louis scientists were able to spare a few lucky mice from the disease. The researchers report that mice genetically engineered so they could no longer produce an enzyme called macrophage elastase didn't get emphysema from cigarette smoke. Normal mice did.

The researchers don't fully understand what the enzyme does in nonsmoking mice or people. And, they say, any drugs that come out of the new research probably would not help repair damaged lungs. The best protection against emphysema, they said, is not to smoke.

-- Dallas Morning News

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