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Largest study into respiratory illness in childhood

Professor Mike Silverman is using a magnetic resonance technique in a study of childhood respiratory illness.

Largest study into respiratory illness in childhood

Leicester Medical School collaborates with Nottingham University to study links between childhood respiratory disease and later degenerative lung disease (COPD).

Professor Mike Silverman, Department of Infection, Immunity & Inflammation, and colleagues at Leicester and Nottingham, are collaborating to use a magnetic resonance technique to image and quantify the air spaces inside the lungs in a project funded by the Wellcome Trust. The results of their research may lead to a link between childhood disease and later degenerative lung disease (COPD).

There are relatively few centres around the world which have access to this particular magnetic resonance technique, based in Nottingham University. Leicester researchers have recruited cohorts of some 10,000 children – the largest to focus on respiratory illnesses in childhood.

Their method relies on the fact that certain noble gases (which are relatively rare in the atmosphere and are very un-reactive), when hyperpolarized in a very strong laser beam, can be detected by magnetic resonance methods.

Tests involve individuals inhaling a very small quantity (in this case 10ml or two teaspoons) of the hyper-polarized helium-3 gas. This technique provides the key to unlock a whole new area of research in the field of lung development.

This is quite different from the magnetic resonance scans that are now commonplace in British hospitals. However, all magnetic resonance techniques function without the use of radioactive substances or ionising radiation (as is the case with x-ray techniques). They are thus very safe, have no known side effects and are ideal for research into childhood illness.

Professor Silverman commented: “Leicester’s role has been to provide the clinical and developmental research questions and a population of children and young people on whom a lot of data has been collected since early infancy. Leicester has also provided a group of researchers with experience of paediatric projects, and of lung function measurements in infants and children of all ages.

“This combined with the technical expertise of the group in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at Nottingham University, led by Professor John Owers-Bradley, has created a very powerful partnership.

“The outcome that we are seeking is evidence that in young people and teenagers, there are differences in alveolar structure and number in association with disorders of fetal prenatal development and early childhood disease.

“We anticipate that there is an additional impact of teenage smoking on alveolar structure and function. If these observations are confirmed, they would provide for the first time evidence of impaired alveolar (as opposed to airway) development in childhood.

“This could be the link between childhood disease and later degenerative lung disease (COPD). We will then seek the specific factors (genetic or environmental) which lead to defective lung development, and will propose further research to ameliorate these factors.”

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2008 edition of LeicesterMed, which you can read online by clicking here .

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