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Measuring lung function in airways diseases: current and emerging techniques


Chronic airways diseases, including asthma, COPD and cystic fibrosis, cause significant morbidity and mortality and are associated with high healthcare expenditure, in the UK and worldwide. For patients with these conditions, improvements in clinical outcomes are likely to depend on the application of precision medicine, that is, the matching of the right treatment to the right patient at the right time. In this context, the identification and targeting of ‘treatable traits’ is an important priority in airways disease, both to ensure the appropriate use of existing treatments and to facilitate the development of new disease-modifying therapy. This requires not only better understanding of airway pathophysiology but also an enhanced ability to make physiological measurements of disease activity and lung function and, if we are to impact on the natural history of these diseases, reliable measures in early disease. In this article, we outline some of the key challenges faced by the respiratory community in the management of airways diseases, including early diagnosis, disease stratification and monitoring of therapeutic response. In this context, we review the advantages and limitations of routine physiological measurements of respiratory function including spirometry, body plethysmography and diffusing capacity and discuss less widely used methods such as forced oscillometry, inert gas washout and the multiple inert gas elimination technique. Finally, we highlight emerging technologies including imaging methods such as quantitative CT and hyperpolarised gas MRI as well as quantification of lung inhomogeneity using precise in-airway gas analysis and mathematical modelling. These emerging techniques have the potential to enhance existing measures in the assessment of airways diseases, may be particularly valuable in early disease, and should facilitate the efforts to deliver precision respiratory medicine.

  • lung function
  • spirometry
  • inhomogeneity
  • airways disease
  • physiology
  • thoracic imaging

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