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Atishoo! From babies with colds to bird flu - new centre to tackle respiratory infections

Think that colds and flu are easy to catch, hard to avoid and impossible to treat? That nobody ever dies of a cold? That's all wrong, say the medics and scientists at a new research centre which launches today (Monday 2 June).

Research into respiratory infections is an urgent priority, they argue. Colds can be a very serious problem for the elderly, babies, and patients with lung disease. History suggests a major flu pandemic is overdue and drug resistant tuberculosis and other 'superbugs' are on the rise.

The new Centre for Respiratory Infection at Imperial College London aims to tackle these issues. It is funded by a £3.4 million award from the Wellcome Trust and will bring together more than 200 scientists to work on a range of problems - how common cold viruses cause disease and affect long-term health, how to make better vaccines to prevent lung infections, and how to diagnose TB more accurately. The centre will also be ready to spring into action if there is a new outbreak of pandemic flu such as a mutated form of bird flu, or SARS.

Professor Peter Openshaw, the Director of the new centre from the National Heart and Lung Institute at Imperial College London, said: "Respiratory disease has never been as well funded as it deserves to be, considering the impact it has on health. Respiratory infections are at the root of many of the diseases that we treat every day. This new initiative is a great opportunity to get something done. We have a lot of very talented groups working on different aspects of lung infections, and bringing them together with solid shared support will help them work on common goals, to the great benefit of patients".

Examples of problems which the centre will tackle include:

* How to quickly bring a flu pandemic under control

Researchers from the new centre are establishing a clinical team that will bring doctors and researchers together to bring a future flu pandemic under control quickly and effectively.

If an outbreak of pandemic flu strikes, doctors will only be able to get the best treatments to patients if they can first analyse the flu strain and find out which therapies are going to work. However, planning and setting up the necessary trials to obtain this information would usually take months.

The new centre will put plans in place in advance, so that researchers can get to work before the epidemic spreads too widely and so that doctors working on the ground are fully prepared.

The researchers will be working closely with colleagues at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust and the MRC Centre for Outbreak Analysis and Modelling at Imperial College London, and with other scientists and government agencies across the world.

Professor Openshaw explained: "We can only move fast to bring an epidemic under control if we have staff ready and plans already in place. To plan at the stage when patients start coming in through casualty will be impossible."

* Why the common cold in babies can cause long term health problems

The respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which causes colds in adults, is the main single cause of hospitalisation in babies under a year of age. It causes most cases of viral bronchiolitis, an infection of the small airways of the lung which leads to breathing problems and which results about 1 in every 40 babies affected being admitted to hospital. Around 40 percent of infants who experience bronchiolitis as a result of RSV infection are affected by recurring wheeze and asthma in childhood.

The researchers will investigate why some babies get severe disease, while the majority recover with ease. Imperial College researchers have already made many important discoveries about RSV, including a study in 2004 which revealed that RSV can 'hit and hide', surviving in the body for many months or years. They are now investigating whether recurrent wheezing in children could be caused by the virus hiding in the lung.

Laura Gallagher | alfa
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