Vital research into incurable lung condition affecting millions to take place in Birmingham

The British Lung Foundation Early COPD Cohort is being set up as part of a new study.

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 (BLF), the University of Birmingham's Dr Elizabeth Sapey and Professor Robert Stockley, a Consultant Respiratory Physician at University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust, 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. 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.

  • 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 Sapey, a Reader in Respiratory Medicine in the Institute of Inflammation and Ageing, said: “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 Dr Ethaar El-Emir at Imperial College London, expects to recruit approximately 1,000 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.

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. 

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