A panic-inducing chest tightness and shortness of breath are symptoms one in 10 Australians with lung disease suffers every day.
Lung disease, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma, is a leading cause of death in Australia.
More than 13,000 people die from lung disease every year, 2014 data from Australian Bureau of Statistics reveals.
COPD also costs Australians more than $8.8 billion per year, mainly due to the high number of hospitalisations.
But researchers from RMIT’s School of Health Sciences aim to reduce the human and financial toll by developing new therapies to extend and improve the lives of people with lung disease.
Associate Professor Ross Vlahos specialises in COPD, which includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema.
His work is inspired by a family connection to lung disease and a lifelong interest in lungs. “My grandmother died of lung cancer when she was in her sixties and she never smoked.
“I want to try to find a therapy that can help people with chronic lung diseases, in particular COPD.”
Most COPD patients smoked at some point in their lives, so Vlahos’ research focuses on cigarette smoke-induced lung inflammation and damage.
These patients are also susceptible to related illnesses, known as co-morbidities, and exacerbations triggered by respiratory infections.
“Current therapies are largely ineffective in COPD, hence there’s a need to identify novel therapies that can treat people with COPD, their exacerbations and co-morbidities,” he says.
Vlahos and fellow RMIT researcher Associate Professor Steven Bozinovski have joined forces with researchers at the Lung Health Research Centre (University of Melbourne) as part of a three- year, $720,000 study funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council to develop new therapies for COPD patients.
Finding a drug to treat lung inflammation suffered by COPD patients is key to boosting lung disease survival rates. This research is focusing on uncovering the reasons why inflammation in COPD-effected lungs fails to be effectively controlled.
“The only effective way of preventing COPD is by quitting smoking. However, inflammation can persist and continue to damage the lungs even once individuals have stopped smoking,” Bozinovski says.
“People with COPD are repeatedly getting hospitalised as a consequence of respiratory infections, and when they get a respiratory infection they are much worse off in terms of health outcomes. They are also more vulnerable to pneumonia.
“We want to improve the patients’ immune system so they can better protect themselves against respiratory infections.”
Bozinovski’s research also explores the link between COPD and lung cancer. “We’re really interested in understanding how COPD leads to increased risk of developing lung cancer,” he says.
This work is complemented by the ongoing research of Professor Charlie Xue, who has analysed COPD and hayfever for almost 20 years. His focus is Chinese herbal medicines and acupuncture.
Xue’s studies with ginseng have showed promising benefits in the treatment of chronic lung disease.
“Ginseng has been a key herb in treating lung disease because it has anti-inflammatory effects and improves symptoms associated with chronic lung diseases,” he says.
“Natural products including Chinese herbal medicine continue to be an important source for new therapeutic development. In addition, ginseng has an excellent safety profile in clinical use for the treatment of chronic lung diseases.”
Story: Kate Jones
Photo: Carla Gottgens
This story was first published in RMIT's Making Connections magazine.