This week Irish researchers announced a dramatic breakthrough in the understanding of the most severe form of hereditary emphysema.

Their findings offer new hope of developing more effective treatments for people suffering from smokers' emphysema.

Emphysema is a progressive disease of the lungs that causes acute shortness of breath and is a major cause of death worldwide.

Researchers in Dublin made their game-changing breakthrough in understanding the mechanisms behind the most severe type of hereditary emphysema, known as Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency.

In patients with Alpha-1, excessive amounts of white blood cells cause chronic lung disease.

Until the Irish breakthrough the cause of this was not fully understood, but now the researchers have uncovered the mechanisms behind the influx of white blood cells which causes the inflammation.

In Ireland the Alpha-1 condition is more common than in most other countries, occurring in one in 2,000 of the population and one in 24 people who carry the gene for the disease.

Professor Gerry McElvaney of the Royal College of Surgeons told the press this week: "Our research also reveals how a treatment known as augmentation therapy, where the natural Alpha-1 protein is given intravenously, leads to a decrease in the white blood cells going into the lungs thereby decreasing inflammation. This research gives new hope for a better quality of life for sufferers of this chronic condition."

McElvaney added that their research may also be applied to those with smoker's emphysema.

"We are now exploring the possibility of treating smoker's emphysema with the Alpha-1 protein," McElvaney said.

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