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BLF research: State of the nation

A new piece of BLF research will provide a lot more detail on lung disease in the UK, explains Ian Jarrold.

Gaining a thorough understanding of a condition is crucial to developing effective ways to deal with it. This is certainly the case for lung disease. Likewise, having an up-to-date picture of lung disease in the UK is essential in making decisions about how to get the most out of resources that aim to tackle it.

From the BLF's perspective, understanding more about the state of lung health in the UK would help us to plan how and where we focus our resources, from campaigning to  research funding, in order to make the biggest impact.

For example, precise information about the number of people who are affected by different lung conditions helps us to raise awareness of the scale and breadth of respiratory disease in the UK.

In turn, this helps influence the use of national health resources to tackle them. From a different perspective, knowing more about what ‘healthy’ lungs are in people of different genders, ages and ethnic backgrounds would also help to define what is ‘not healthy’. This will help doctors to detect lung problems more accurately.

Talking to the experts

Having access to clear, accurate and up-to-date information about UK respiratory disease is of critical importance to people living with a lung condition, to the BLF and to all organisations that are involved in respiratory health.

However, finding this information, pulling it together and presenting it in a meaningful way is a major undertaking that requires specialist expertise. In the past, some useful data about UK lung disease has been published, but the picture has been incomplete and the majority of available information is now out of date.

Therefore, the BLF has recently commissioned a group of scientists led by David Strachan, Professor of Epidemiology at St George’s University of London, to investigate the respiratory health of the nation.

A clearer picture

During this three-year study, which began in January this year, Professor Strachan will work with colleagues at the University of Nottingham University of Edinburgh and Imperial College London to analyse several sources of scientific data which will provide a detailed picture of lung disease, and lung health, in the UK. One of the sources of information that the team will examine is the UK Biobank project.

This initiative has produced the biggest and most detailed database of biomedical information in the world, holding information on 500,000 people from across the UK. These people have undergone various measures, including giving blood, urine and saliva samples for future analysis, and have provided detailed information about themselves. Importantly, one of the tests performed was a measure of how well their lungs were working, via a test called ‘spirometry’.

Professor Strachan and his team will analyse this spirometry data and draw conclusions about what ‘healthy’ measurements look like in people of different ethnic backgrounds. He will then find out whether these measurements can tell us more about a person’s overall health or predict illness and death from a wide range of causes.

The team will also investigate data that will provide information about the UK hospital workload for lung disease, including numbers of hospital admissions for respiratory problems and how long people stay in hospital. This will give us up-to-date information about the hospital resources that are currently being used in respiratory care.

Global perspective

The work will not only focus on disease, but will also look at lung health. This will include an assessment of respiratory health in separate UK nations and comparisons of the UK with other European nations, the United States and Australasia. This information will help us to gauge where the UK fits in the global landscape, to identify where the UK is doing well, and to determine how we might be able to learn more from other countries about keeping lungs healthy and improving respiratory care.

This grant will help the BLF to plan how we use our resources in an informed way, helping us to make the largest positive impact possible and to get the most out of the invaluable donations we receive. Gaining a more detailed picture of lung health will help us to create rigorous, informed campaigns to raise awareness of respiratory disease in the UK.

It will also help us to influence external organisations in funding more respiratory research and providing better health care services for people living with a lung condition. We also hope that this work will lead to the development of positive messages about the importance of looking after your lungs and the benefits of keeping lungs healthy.

Breaking ground

Research is essential in the fight against lung disease, helping the development of new treatments and cures. BLF research projects have had many successes, including:

  • identifying one of the genes involved in lung cancer;
  • proving that vitamin C is crucial for healthy lungs;
  • identifying which components of air pollution are the most hazardous to our lungs;
  • pioneering effective home treatment for children with pneumonia;
  • leading to a 30 per cent reduction in the unnecessary use of antibiotics to treat chest infections;
  • shedding light on how lung cancers become resistant to treatment;
  • showing that appropriate treatment is crucial in helping people with obstructive sleep apnoea to drive safely; and
  • pioneering the use of pulmonary rehabilitation treatment for COPD.

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7 February 2013