Scientists have for the first time discovered sixteen new sections of the genetic code that relate to lung health – opening up the possibility for better prevention as well as treatment for lung diseases.
An international consortium of 175 scientists from 126 centres in Europe, the USA and Australia identified genetic variants associated with the health of the human lung. Their discovery sheds new light on the molecular basis of lung diseases like Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).
It is the first time that these sixteen common genetic variants have been definitely linked with lung function. Researchers say the new pathways discovered could be targeted by drugs.
The study was led by Professor Martin Tobin from the University of Leicester, and Professor Ian Hall from The University of Nottingham and Dr Stephanie London from the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
The pioneering research involved a genetic study of 2.5 million genetic variants in each of 48,201 people across the world. A smaller number of the most promising variants were then studied in a further 46,411 individuals. The research, published today in Nature Genetics, was part funded by the East Midlands Healthcare and Bioscience iNet (which is part-financed by the European Regional Development Fund), the UK Medical Research Council (MRC) and the Wellcome Trust.
The recent discoveries build on research published by the same authors last year, bringing the total number of genetic variants associated with lung function to twenty six. The same authors also showed, in research published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine in June 2011, that variants which predict lung function also predict the disease, COPD.
Professor Martin Tobin, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology and Public Health & MRC Senior Clinical Fellow at the University of Leicester, said: “COPD – a progressive disease that makes it hard for people to breathe – affects around 1 in 10 adults above the age of 40 and is fourth most common cause of death worldwide.
“Smoking is the most important risk for developing COPD. Smokers are not all equally likely to develop COPD and differences in susceptibility occur due to the genetic variants people carry. For the first time we understand what so many of these genetic variants are, including the underlying mechanisms that they point to. We now need to prioritise research to better understand these disease mechanisms and inform improved patient care.
“These discoveries could provide the key to new therapies for lung diseases such as COPD. It is too early to say whether this information would be of use as a screening test to predict the development of COPD. Stopping smoking is the best way to prevent COPD.
Professor Ian Hall said “This work is important because until recently we have not understood the factors which underlie inherited variability in lung function. The very large genetic studies required to identify key genes would not have been possible without the support of many groups around the world and the input of thousands of subjects. We now need to take the knowledge gained from this study to do two things: firstly to learn more about the function of genes which contribute to the risk of developing lung diseases such as COPD, and secondly to try and develop strategies to use genetic information to improve the clinical care provided to individual patients.”
Research into respiratory diseases in Leicester received a timely boost with the recent announcement of a £4.5 million new NIHR Biomedical Research Unit (BRU) based at Glenfield Hospital in partnership with the University of Leicester. Professor Andrew Wardlaw, Professor of Allergy and Respiratory Medicine, said: “Our remit is to undertake research of this kind, which advances our understanding of lung diseases, and to translate these findings into clinical care”
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NOTE TO NEWSDESKS
Lung function is commonly expressed using two measures recorded using a simple device called a spirometer. These measures are termed the FEV1 (or forced expiratory volume in 1 second) which is the volume of air that can be breathed out in 1 second, and the FVC (forced vital capacity) which is the total volume of air that can be breathed out. In chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which encompasses chronic bronchitis and emphysema, narrowing of the airways causes a disproportionate reduction in FEV1. Cough, phlegm and shortness of breath are common symptoms of COPD. The simplest way to diagnose COPD is through spirometry, which is usually available in general practitioners’ surgeries. Although there is no cure for COPD, stopping smoking and treatments can improve symptoms and reduce the impact of COPD on exercise and daily activities. Drug treatments include bronchodilators and, for exacerbations, may include short-term steroids. Patients with COPD are more susceptible to serious lung infections, so flu vaccination each winter is important.
The genetic determinants of COPD can be studied by investigating the genetic variants that affect the risk of developing COPD itself or by studying lung function itself, on which the diagnosis of COPD is based. Reduced lung function may also occur in patients with other airway diseases such as asthma.
Further research will be needed to study in detail the molecular alterations in the lung that result from the genetic variants identified, and to investigate whether these might be targeted by drugs.
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Further information on lung function and on COPD and asthma is available from:
The British Lung Foundation:
The British Lung Foundation works for everyone affected by lung disease. The charity focuses its resources on providing support for people affected by lung disease today; and works in a variety of ways (including funding world-class research) to bring about positive change, to improve treatment, care and support for people affected by lung disease in the future.
It provides information via its website www.lunguk.org and telephone helpline on 08458 50 50 20
Asthma UK is the charity dedicated to improving the health and well-being of the 5.4million people in the UK with asthma. For more information visit asthma.org.uk
About the Medical Research Council
For almost 100 years the Medical Research Council has improved the health of people in the UK and around the world by supporting the highest quality science. The MRC invests in world-class scientists. It has produced 29 Nobel Prize winners and sustains a flourishing environment for internationally recognised research. The MRC focuses on making an impact and provides the financial muscle and scientific expertise behind medical breakthroughs, including the first antibiotic penicillin, the structure of DNA and the lethal link between smoking and cancer. Today MRC funded scientists tackle research into the major health challenges of the 21st century. www.mrc.ac.uk
The Wellcome Trust is a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health. It supports the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. The Trust’s breadth of support includes public engagement, education and the application of research to improve health. It is independent of both political and commercial interests.
The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) provides the framework through which the research staff and research infrastructure of the NHS in England is positioned, maintained and managed as a national research facility. The NIHR provides the NHS with the support and infrastructure it needs to conduct first-class research funded by the Government and its partners alongside high-quality patient care, education and training. Its aim is to support outstanding individuals (both leaders and collaborators), working in world-class facilities (both NHS and university), conducting leading-edge research focused on the needs of patients. www.nihr.ac.uk
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The Healthcare and Bioscience iNet is an initiative, delivered by Medilink East Midlands, that helps people in the sector in the East Midlands to develop new technologies, processes, products and services in order to build a healthy economy.
The iNet, which is part-financed by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), brings together businesses, colleges, universities, public sector representatives and individuals with a shared interest in a market or the technology that underpins it.
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Medilink East Midlands is based at BioCity in Nottingham, a renowned life science industry centre of excellence, but it covers the whole region.
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