Breathing new life into children's chest infection
17 September 2001
A bronchiolitis factsheet is available at www.action.org.uk/news_media/bronc_fact.php
Scientists have discovered that babies have a genetic disposition to developing the potentially-fatal chest infection bronchiolitis.
The findings could have a future impact on the development of new treatments and vaccines for the disease - which results in the hospitalisation of about 20,000 children under one year old.
Scientists made the exciting discovery in a one-year project funded by leading medical research charity Action Research, which is famous for developing the UK’s first polio and rubella vaccines.
Despite few parents having ever heard of the condition, bronchiolitis is an important cause of lung disease in babies, with most cases resulting from an infection with Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV).
The virus will have infected nearly all children by the time they reach the age of two. It can cause mild symptoms in the majority of youngsters, but life-threatening chest complications in others.
Lead researcher Dr Jeremy Hull, of Oxford University’s Department of Paediatrics, says: ‘The way individuals respond to the same infection is different, just in the same way that people are different heights and have different hair colour. There is mounting evidence that at least part of the reason for these different responses to infection with RSV lies in the genes.’
Researchers at Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital collected DNA from more than 400 babies from the Oxford and London regions all of whom were suffering from the severe form of the infection. The team found that a variation on one of the genes, known as interleukin 8 (IL8 gene) occurs more often in these babies than expected.
Dr Hull adds: ‘This means that these babies have a genetic predisposition to developing the disease.’
Although the team has not yet been able to establish the exact function of the gene variant, the researchers believe that it could determine the way a baby responds to the RSV infection, and the disease severity.
Before their first birthday about 60% of all babies will become infected with RSV. Although most babies will only have a mild cold, in a minority of cases it can lead to bronchiolitis severe enough to require emergency treatment.
‘It’s not hard to imagine that when your baby is only two or three months old and needs to be admitted to hospital to be given a feeding tube and oxygen, that the experience is going to be very stressful’, says Dr Hull, who worked alongside Professor Dominic Kwiatkowski and research worker Katherine Rowlands.
The team is now continuing its work by exploring which other genes are also important in susceptibility to bronchiolitis.
The researchers hope that by understanding what predisposes to the disease they can work out which genes (and therefore which proteins) are important in controlling disease severity. This can then provide targets for new treatment, including the development of effective vaccines.
‘A vaccine for bronchiolitis would be a major advance, and I think the only practical way of controlling this disease. There are many challenges in the development of an effective vaccine, but progress is being made’, says Dr Hull.
Action Research has already committed to more than £290,000 to three other projects looking specifically at bronchiolitis. Two projects in both Liverpool and London are looking at the unwanted effects of an overzealous immune system, with one looking in more detail at the relationship between bronchiolitis and asthma - a condition recently reported to be on the rise. Another study in the capital is hoping to make strides in vaccine development.
Action Research’s Touching Lives Campaign aims to raise £2m for vital medical research. Visit the website at www.action.org.uk For a free copy of the bronchiolitis fact-sheet please write to Action Research, Vincent House, North Parade, Horsham, West Sussex, RG12 2DP. For further media information and interviews, please contact Nicole Duckworth in the Action Research press office on 01403 327403 Fax: 01403 210541, or email firstname.lastname@example.org ISDN facilities are available.
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