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Identifying those at risk of COPD

Gavin is a professor in respiratory studies at Imperial College London. He's working on a study that hopes to identify people at risk of developing COPD in order to treat it early.

For the last 25 years I've studied chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). I'm now part of an outstanding team of researchers working on the British Lung Foundation’s early COPD cohort study. Everyone working on the study has a long-standing research interest in COPD. 

By studying the very early stages of COPD, we are hoping to be able to identify those at risk of developing this condition. COPD affects three million people in the UK and there is currently no cure. 

Studying the early stages of COPD

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For our study, we're tracking the lung function of a group of young adult smokers between the ages of 30 and 45. The study will pick out those whose lung function is beginning to decline and are therefore at risk of developing COPD.

Although anyone can develop COPD, people who smoke run a particularly high risk of developing it. However, 20% of people with COPD have never smoked and not all smokers develop COPD. 

Stopping smoking is the best advice to reduce your risk of developing COPD. But we know many people find this difficult. By studying of the early stages of the disease, we hope to learn more about the aspects of the lung that need to be protected or encouraged to repair. 

This is the first study to be done with such a young group of individuals. It allows us to study the early stages of the condition in a way that has not previously been possible. We hope that this work will provide the key to unlocking better treatments for people with COPD.

There's currently very little knowledge about the early stages of COPD development (the stages before people tend to seek medical help). We hope to be able to find out if using different treatments at this stage might be beneficial and even slow the progression of the condition. 

Our hopes for the future

In the short term, like much non-COVID research, we hope to continue our research during and after the pandemic. Outside of the current lockdown and government advice, there's a natural reluctance of new recruits and research participants to travel and visit hospitals at the moment.  It's vital people continue to participate in research - particularly for long-term conditions like COPD. Only through research participation can scientists make the advances to defeat diseases.  

COPD is a combination of structural and mechanistic damage. So in the long term, we want to understand how small airways are damaged and why some processes cannot be switched off.

The study is still looking for volunteers. Further details available on their website.

Read more about this study and the latest respiratory news and research in the latest edition of Respiratory Health


Having developed COPD in my 70s, I was dismayed to realise that the assumption was that I had had a lifetime of smoking. I had not. So I was cheered by the remark that perhaps only 20 percent had. Please make this more public!

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12 November 2020