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Monday, 17 September, 2001, 10:38 GMT 11:38 UK
Gene key to baby chest infection
Two thirds of babies are infected with the virus which causes the chest infection before they are one
Two thirds of babies are infected with the virus which causes the chest infection before they are one
Scientists have discovered a genetic variation which means some babies are more likely to develop a potentially fatal chest infection.

The discovery could lead to the development of a vaccine against bronchiolitis, a condition of which many parents are unaware.

Twenty thousand babies with a severe form of it are treated in hospital in the UK every year.

It is the main cause of lung disease in babies, but there is no cure, and doctors can only treat the symptoms.

Most cases occur after babies are infected by the Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV).


A vaccine for bronchiolitis would be a major advance and I think the only practical way of controlling the disease

Dr Jeremy Hull, Oxford University
It infects the bronchioles, which are tiny air passages, deep in the lungs.

About 60% of babies will be infected with the virus before their first birthday.

Most only suffer a mild cold, but a minority develop bronchiolitis severe enough to require emergency treatment.

Across the world, 65m children are infected every year. Although most make a full recovery, one million die from the condition.

Genetics

In bronchiolitis, it is thought babies' immune system may over-react to RSV, sending so many white blood cells to fight it that the walls of the airways swell.

This prevents air flowing through the lungs, causing breathing problems and sometimes damaging the lung tissues.

Scientists at Oxford University's department of paediatrics studied over 400 babies who were suffering from a severe form of bronchiolitis.

They collected DNA from the babies, who were from around Oxford and London.

The team found a variation in a gene called interleukin 8 (IL8 gene) occurred in babies with bronchiolitis more often than would normally be expected.

Doctors say babies with this variation have a genetic predisposition to developing the disease.

They do not yet know exactly how the gene variant works.

But researchers believe it could determine how a baby responds to RSV infection, and how serious the disease is likely to be.

Dr Jeremy Hull, who led the one-year research project said: "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."

Susceptibility

The team are now going to continue their research, which is funded by the medical charity Action Research, to see what other genes may be important in determining who is susceptible to bronchiolitis.

They hope the research will lead to the development of a vaccine against the condition.

If the researchers can discover which genes, and therefore which proteins, are important in controlling how serious the infection will be, they can develop new treatments.

Dr Hull said: "A vaccine for bronchiolitis would be a major advance and I think the only practical way of controlling the disease.

"There are many challenges in the development of an effective vaccine, but progress is being made."

Action Research has also ploughed almost 300,000 into studies looking at how an overzealous immune system may affect the progress of the disease, one looking at the relationship between bronchiolitis and asthma, and another also looking at the development of a vaccine.

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