Quicker test for smoking diseases

RESEARCHERS are a step closer to a treatment for a smoking-related illness that kills more than 250 Hunter New England residents each year.

Hunter Medical Research Institute scientists have developed a model that allows them to observe the development of emphysema and related diseases in laboratory tests over eight weeks – much faster than in the past.

Previously they could only observe the development of the illnesses – also known collectively as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – over six months.

The findings of the five-year project have been published in the prestigious international Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

Almost 3000 people are hospitalised each year in the Hunter New England area with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and 260 people die from the illness.

These rates are above the NSW average.

Professor Phil Hansbro, who headed the research team, said the new model would allow them to look at causes and develop treatment for the diseases sooner.

At present there are no treatments for emphysema – only steroid treatments for symptoms.

‘‘Even if you stop smoking, it continues; we want to try and find ways of stopping it progressing,’’ Professor Hansbro said.

Emphysema is a degenerative disease that develops in one in five smokers.

The rate of deterioration between diagnosis and death can be anywhere between five and 10 years.

Using the model, Professor Hansbro and his team found that mast cells in the lung, which protect against bacteria and parasites by becoming inflamed, were getting inflamed in response to cigarette smoke and causing tissue damage.

‘‘If we cut out a protein from those cells it stops the disease progressing,’’ he said.

‘‘If we can develop an inhibitor of the protein, that’s potentially a new therapy.’’

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