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Supported by the British Lung Foundation, Dr Elizabeth Sapey and Professor Robert Stockley, will be conducting research into the very early stages of the development of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

A thousand people are needed for ground-breaking research being carried out by the University of Birmingham into an incurable lung condition.

Supported by the British Lung Foundation, Dr Elizabeth Sapey and Professor Robert Stockley, will be conducting research into the very early stages of the development of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which affects three million people in the UK.*

For the first time, through this research they will be able to identify people at risk of developing the condition which is a considerable cause of illness and death.

The research team will establish the “BLF Early COPD Cohort”, a group of young adult smokers between the ages of 30-45, to track changes in their lung function over time. This will identify and study the people whose lung function is beginning to decline and are at risk of developing COPD.

COPD is a life-long condition that makes breathing difficult because the airways have been narrowed. People living with COPD will feel out of breath doing everyday tasks such as hoovering or walking to the shops.

Though 20% of people with COPD have never smoked and not all smokers develop COPD - it is mainly caused by smoking from early adulthood.

According to BLF research, people in Birmingham are 18% more likely to die from this serious condition than the England, Scotland and Wales average. They are also over 57% more likely to be hospitalised for COPD than the average person in Great Britain.**

Progress in finding treatments has been far slower than in other chronic disease areas such as heart disease and cancer – there are no drugs that can slow progression and no treatment that can reverse damage.

COPD patients have long called for earlier diagnosis and new approaches to treatment. However, for this, an improved understanding of the early phases of COPD is needed.

Dr Elizabeth Sapey, Reader in Respiratory Medicine at the University of Birmingham's Institute of Inflammation and Ageing, said: “Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is one of the most common chronic conditions globally and associated with a significant number of deaths and disability.

“The most common risk factor is smoking, but not all smokers develop COPD. COPD can occur in non-smokers and currently we cannot predict who is most at risk.

“As COPD is a slowly progressive and insidious disease, most patients are not diagnosed or treated until a significant amount of lung damage has occurred.

“Most research into COPD includes patients with moderate or severe disease and we know very little about the earliest stages of this devastating condition.

“This gap in our knowledge is a real problem, as understanding early disease may provide the best opportunities for preventing lung damage or stopping COPD from developing.

“The BLF Early COPD Cohort is a national effort across academic and NHS centres to identify people at risk of COPD and identify factors which might cause some people to develop this disease.

“Birmingham will be a major centre for recruitment and scientific discovery, and we are very proud to be taking part in this globally unique programme to unlock the secrets of early disease."

Ian Jarrold, head of research at the British Lung Foundation, said: “COPD can be incredibly life-limiting for people. Think about the last time you were out of breath, and imagine being in that state just doing everyday tasks like brushing your teeth.

“There remains an urgent need to provide people with better treatments, but this is dependent on us gaining a better understanding of how the condition develops and progresses.

“This study will be invaluable in helping us answer these questions.”

The study, led by Professor Wisia Wedzicha at Imperial College London, expects to recruit approximately 1000 participants from eight centres nationwide.

Participants could benefit by having a CT scan of the chest free of charge, access to stop smoking support, a research team specialising in COPD, and follow-ups with the NHS if abnormalities are found.

They can be male or female, must be aged 30-45 years old with more than a 10 pack per year history of smoking, with either normal lung function or mild lung function abnormalities.

If you would like to take part in the study, please email Dr Sapey.

For more information, please contact Emma McKinney, Communications Manager (Health Sciences), University of Birmingham, tel: +44 (0) 121 414 6681. For out of hours enquiries contact the press office on +44 (0) 7789 921 165.

  • The University of Birmingham is ranked amongst the world’s top 100 institutions. Its work brings people from across the world to Birmingham, including researchers, teachers and more than 5,000 international students from over 150 countries.
  • The British Lung Foundation is the only UK charity fighting to help the 1 in 5 people in the UK affected by lung disease, by researching new treatments, campaigning for better awareness and services, and providing support and advice for patients, carers and family members. For help and support, call the BLF Helpline on 03000 030 555. To donate £5 to help the BLF fight lung disease, please text LUNGS to 70500.

* 1.2 million live with COPD in the UK and an estimated 2 million remain undiagnosed. NHS England: Overview of potential to reduce lives lost from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
** Battle for Breath - the impact of lung disease in the UK, British Lung Foundation. These are “relative risks” that measure the risk in a certain area relative to “England Scotland and Wales”. The data are adjusted for age – i.e. the age distribution in each area has been taken into account in the calculation of the figures. This means that the differences seen in admission and mortality risks are not simply because of differences in the age distribution between areas.