Researchers from the Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) in the UK are revolutionizing the way children’s lung conditions are diagnosed, after a study has shown how their lung capacities differ within healthy children of different ethnicities.

Researchers say results of The Size and Lung Function in Children (SLIC) study, conducted by University College London Institute of Child Health (ICH), will enable doctors to interpret each child’s individual lung function results against the closest benchmarks for their ethnic background when diagnosing lung conditions and deciding the best treatment to take.

For the study, ICH researchers analyzed the lung measurements of 1,600 children aged between 5 and 11, from 14 primary schools in London.

All children were analyzed using mobile testing laboratories, which also took into account how the surrounding air quality in a big city, such as London, could affect lung function.

For the testing, the children were divided into four ethnic groups:

  • Black
  • White
  • South-Asian (Indian subcontinent)
  • Other/mixed ethnicities.

The researchers say the results provided clear evidence of variations in the lung capacities of the children, dependent on their ethnicity and chest size.

This research will now be used to develop “gold standard” lung growth charts. These will show the normal range of lung capacities for children of different ethnicities based on their gender, age, height, and additionally, their body size and shape.

Janet Stocks, professor of respiratory psychology at the ICH, explains that in the past, interpretation of lung function was based on a child’s height and gender, not taking differences in chest size into account. This means that the same lung capacity would be expected for all children of the same height.

Prof. Janet Stocks and Dr. Sooky Lum, senior research fellow at ICH, told Medical News Today:

“Treatment just based on symptoms is sometimes insufficient. Breathing tests provide vital additional information which can help in improving the treatment.”

For accurate diagnosis and treatment, doctors need to know what to expect in healthy children before they can detect and treat children with lung problems.”

“While we know the normal values for breathing tests in white children, there are no normal values for children from other ethnicities, such as South Asian and African children.”

The gold standard chart should improve the diagnosis of lung disease, the researchers say, as well as take into account other factors, such as the effects of environmental pollution on lung health and the child’s socio-economic background.

The researchers add:

“Many respiratory diseases, including asthma, have their origins in early childhood and if we can detect and treat such diseases before permanent lung damage occurs we could promote lung health throughout life.

Similarly, this work could help children with mild respiratory symptoms receiving unnecessary medications.”

The researchers are now looking into conducting follow-up testing, which will involve 2,200 pupils, and more than 3,000 lung measurements.

“We have a mountain of data to analyze to see which factors relating to body shape, size and composition can explain the differences to lung function so that we do not have to adjust for ethnic background in future,” the researchers say.

The gold standard lung charts will be need to be verified worldwide, the researchers say, and look to be extended to older age groups before they can be used internationally.

However, they add that the charts are expected to be in use at the respiratory unit at GOSH within 2 to 3 years.