Bronchiolitis: developing ways to prevent or treat serious lung infections | Children's Charity

Bronchiolitis: developing ways to prevent or treat serious lung infections

Published on 12 September 2018

Bronchiolitis is a distressing, potentially life-threatening lung infection that affects over 33 million babies and infants worldwide every year.1 It is very often caused by the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), but little is known about why some children develop potentially lethal infections while others have mild symptoms. Dr Donald J. Davidson at the University of Edinburgh is investigating the protective effects of cathelicidin, a naturally-occurring anti-viral compound. He is aiming to develop ways to boost the body’s cathelicidin production to help prevent or treat RSV infections, saving babies lives and reducing the heartache of life-threatening infections.

This grant is also supported by The Chief Scientist Office (CSO) Scotland.

How are children’s lives affected now?

Bronchiolitis is typically caused by viral infection leading to blockages in the tiny airways of the lungs, making breathing difficult. It is more common in children who are born prematurely, have congenital heart disease, a weakened immune system or are under six months old.

Around one in three children in the UK will develop bronchiolitis before their first birthday, with over 45,000 admitted to hospital each year for monitoring or treatment.2 Infection with the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is the most common cause.  

“In older children and adults this common and highly contagious virus may cause mild, cold-like symptoms – but it can be much more serious for young infants,” says Dr Davidson. “Unfortunately, there is currently no vaccine available to protect against RSV – and there are no effective treatments.”

Sadly, over 100,000 children under five years old will lose their lives to RSV each year worldwide.1

“Understanding why some children are more susceptible to severe RSV infections could lead to new ways to protect babies from serious illness,” says Dr Davidson.

How could this research help?

“Our aim is to find ways to prevent or treat potentially life-threatening lung infections caused by RSV in young children,” says Dr Davidson.

The team are building on from their previous discovery about a naturally-produced substance in the body called cathelicidin.

“We believe that infants, particularly those born too soon, initially have very little cathelicidin in their noses,” says Dr Davidson. “The absence of a ‘cathelicidin shield’ at this entry point for RSV, may increase their risk of a serious infection.”

The team are measuring cathelicidin in the noses of babies (born full-term or prematurely) – to find out when they start to make it, track its levels as children grow, and see how levels influence their risk of severe RSV infection.

“We will now be able to extend our studies of naturally-produced cathelicidin with laboratory work to see if cathelicidin-boosting strategies can help protect against RSV,” says Dr Davidson. “If our results are encouraging, our goal is for clinical trials within five to ten years – to test ways to prevent or treat serious RSV infections.”


  1. Shi, T. et al. Global, regional, and national disease burden estimates of acute lower respiratory infections due to respiratory syncytial virus in young children in 2015: a systematic review and modelling study. The Lancet 2017; 390(10098): 946-958.
  2. NHS Choices: [website accessed 28 August 2018]
Project LeaderDr Donald J Davidson, MBChB PhD FRSB
Project team
  • Professor Debby Bogaert, MD PhD
  • Professor Jürgen Schwarze, Dr. med. habil. FRCPCH
  • Dr Catherine M McDougall, MSc MBChB PhD MRCPCH
  • Professor James P Boardman, BSc (Hons) MBBS MSc PhD FRCPCH
  • Professor Steve Cunningham, MBChB PhD FRCP FRCPCH
LocationUniversity of Edinburgh Centre for Inflammation Research, Queen’s Medical Research Institute, University of Edinburgh
Other locations
  • MRC Centre for Reproductive Medicine, Queen’s Medical Research Institute, University of Edinburgh
Duration2 years
Grant awarded25 July 2018
Start date1 February 2019
End date31 January 2021
Grant amount£180,527.00
Grant codeGN2703

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