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University finds new understanding of lung growth

Thursday 8th December 2011
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A ground-breaking study at the University of Leicester into how lungs develop has challenged traditional medical understanding that the lungs are fully developed by the age of three.

Researchers at the university have developed a theory that new air sacs, known as alveoli, are constantly formed within the lungs causing an ongoing growth within the respiratory system. This new theory understands that the alveoli develops in the lungs six months prior to birth and are fully developed by the time a person reaches the age of three.

The research goes against all teaching that has been published in medical journals and textbooks and has challenged the very fabric of the human respiratory system.

Dr Manjith Narayanan, one of the leaders of the study from the University of Leicester, said: "It was believed that there was no further increase in the number of alveoli beyond that age, and that the existing alveoli just expanded as the lungs grew bigger until final adult size was reached. Our study has challenged this by suggesting that new alveoli continue to be formed as the lungs grow."

The team at the university studied 100 healthy volunteers between the ages of seven and 21 years old, testing their breathing in Leicester before sending them for special magnetic resonance scans in Nottingham, during which they breathed in hyperpolarised helium and held their breath.

Dr Narayanan added: "The helium is hyperpolarised, which means that the molecules all line up in one direction and it then behaves like a magnetised gas. Within the scanner, we can measure how the magnetism decays, and this in turn depends on the size of the air sacs, alveoli, which contain the helium. The technique is safe and not painful or uncomfortable in any way."

Professor Mike Silverman, emeritus professor of child health at Leicester, adds: "This research has important implications. If we can continue to develop new alveoli beyond early childhood, going on through adolescence, there is the potential for lung repair following injury that was never realised before."

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written by James PuckleADNFCR-1780-ID-801234035-ADNFCR

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