The UK is sitting on a lung disease ‘time bomb’ says a leading respiratory expert. Referring to the dramatic rise in cases of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, Luca Richeldi, professor and consultant in respiratory medicine at Southampton General Hospital in the UK, says there is an urgent need to develop a quick and easy way to diagnose the rare lung disease.

Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) causes 5,000 deaths a year in the UK, and new cases are rising at a rate of 5,000 a year, he warns.

IPF is a rare and poorly understood interstitial lung disease that causes inflammation and scarring of the lungs. Of unknown cause, IPF gets worse over time and is often fatal. There is no known cure, and life expectancy for patients with IPF is between 3 and 5 years.

The disease mostly strikes people between the age of 50 and 70, mainly men and former smokers. In the UK, IPF affects around 15,000 people over 60. In the US, IPF affects about 128,000 people, with about 48,000 new cases diagnosed annually and 40,000 deaths.

IPF is often not diagnosed until symptoms appear, such as shortness of breath and coughing. Consequently, the most that the only available treatment – the anti-fibrotic drug Esbriet – can do, is slow progression of the disease.

Speaking about the UK, Prof. Richeldi, says:

Nationally, the number of people suffering from IPF and other interstitial lung disease is increasing by thousands every year, but the cause is often unknown. As a result, the majority of patients are diagnosed late when their life expectancy has been cut extremely short.”

Of patients currently receiving treatment at Southampton General Hospital’s respiratory centre, over a quarter (28%) have some form of interstitial lung disease, and four to six new patients with the condition are arriving every week.

Prof. Richeldi says these numbers show there is an “urgent need” to develop a quick and simple way of diagnosing IPF.

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The number of people suffering from IPF is increasing by thousands every year, but the cause is often unknown.

Prof. Richeldi has relaunched a study he started in Italy to establish if electronic stethoscopes – normally used to listen to the heart – can detect early signs of IPF.

He and others believe the electronic stethoscopes can identify distinctive sounds – like the crackling noise that ripped Velcro makes – that could “alert clinicians to people who might be developing the early stages of the disease.”

Patients making these sounds could then be sent for high-resolution CT scans to confirm the diagnosis, he says, and that ideally this would be “before they become symptomatic, and give us the opportunity to start an appropriate close monitoring programme and intervene before the condition has taken hold.”

Medical News Today recently learned how new research links body clocks to chronic lung diseases. Scientists at the University of Manchester in the UK suggest the body’s natural rhythm could be used to improve current treatments to delay the onset of chronic lung diseases.