‘Our Future Health will be a vital resource in the fight against lung disease’ 

Spotlight – 29 May 2024
Dr Samantha Walker, Director of Research & Innovation at Asthma + Lung UK, on why her charity is partnering with Our Future Health  
Dr Samantha Walker, Director of Research & Innovation at Asthma + Lung UK

Almost everyone knows we need to keep our hearts healthy. But lungs? They get a fraction of the attention – and of the money. Lung disease is the third biggest killer in the UK, yet studies into conditions that affect our lungs only receive two per cent of the country’s public health research funding.  

“Our biggest challenge in the next decade is raising the profile of lung health,” says Dr Samantha Walker, Director of Research & Innovation at Asthma + Lung UK (A+LUK). “Most people don’t even think about it until they have a problem breathing, and by then it can be too late.”   

That helps to explain why A+LUK recently became one of Our Future Health’s first charity funding partners. The charity is taking a seat on one of our governance boards, alongside other charity, government and industry partners who co-fund our programme. It means A+LUK can help maximise the use of Our Future Health for lung research, now and in the future.  

“Joining forces with Our Future Health will raise awareness of the importance of good lung health and ensure lung research receives the funding and recognition it needs to make a real difference to people’s health and lives,” says Samantha. “A+LUK wants to do what has been done for Alzheimer’s disease and for heart health – bring lung health to the front of people’s minds.” 

Breaking down the stigma 

Lung disease is a broad term that covers various conditions, including asthma, emphysema (also known as bronchitis or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – COPD), lung cancers and lung fibrosis. Samantha says that understanding and treating these conditions has suffered from a chronic lack of research funding.  

“Historically, lung research has been sidelined, in part due to stigma,” she explains. “This is because some lung diseases, for example COPD, are caused by smoking, which people then see as being self-inflicted. It’s also because lung diseases are associated with health inequalities.   

“We urgently need more research to find new methods of diagnosis, and new treatments for lung diseases. And Our Future Health can help with both.”  

Not only is Our Future Health bringing together up to five million adults, we are also committed to making sure our volunteer group truly reflects the UK population. “The fact that volunteers for Our Future Health come from all kinds of backgrounds is invaluable for research,” says Samantha. “Diversity is one of Our Future Health’s strongest assets – especially as we know 19 out of 20 of the worst respiratory outcomes are in areas of high deprivation.”   

Researchers can study our volunteers’ data to spot new patterns. For example, they might look at people from lower socio-economic communities to assess the causes of lung diseases, from environmental exposures and infections to allergies, air pollution and smoking.   

“In the future, this data will help identify people at higher risk of lung diseases,” says Samatha. “We could then reach out to them to help prevent diseases, or to detect them earlier.

“Currently, lung conditions are often diagnosed too late. Not only for the people requiring treatment, but also for the research community. It means researchers struggle to understand how the conditions develop and progress.  

“Our Future Health can help change that. Volunteers are offering an incredibly detailed picture of their health, including their NHS medical records – past, present and future. We’re confident this programme will become researchers’ most useful global resource to look at health across people’s life span,” says Samantha. 

“Our next challenge is to use the data to help develop better treatments and opportunities for people who have or may develop lung illnesses.”  

Recontact – and the search for a new test 

For Samantha, one of the most powerful features of Our Future Health is that our volunteers can be recontacted in the future and asked to take part in further studies.

“There is a real appetite among people living with lung conditions to be involved in and help with research if they can,” she says. “However, it’s currently very hard – and costly – to recruit patients onto studies. Our Future Health is building a ready-made pool of several million people who we can contact for studies. This will make doing clinical trials in the UK a lot easier.”  

She uses smoking as an example. “We know that there’s a small percentage of smokers who don’t get COPD. But we don’t really know why.  

“Researchers could look at the smoking history of Our Future Health volunteers and recontact smokers who have not developed COPD. We could start to work out what’s different about them to the people who do get the disease. That could become a fertile area of research for possible new treatments, too.”      

Samantha also points to the search for a new diagnostic test as an area of hope. Currently, doctors use spirometry to detect lung issues, but it is both expensive and labour intensive.   

“It’s hard to tell, in the early stages of lung disease, if someone is breathless due to a chest infection, being overweight or out of condition or because they have a disease. We need a simple and inexpensive test that measures the health of the lungs. It would help doctors diagnose lung disease, in the same way that your blood pressure and pulse give clues about what’s going on in your heart.”  

“So, for example, if you are a 38-year-old man and the test tells you that you have the lungs of a 55-year-old man, it will flag that you need help.”  

Our Future Health’s group of diverse volunteers could offer researchers a pool of people to research how any new test compares to spirometry.   

Calling everyone with lung disease

Now the two organisations are officially linked, Samantha sees her role as a cheerleader for Our Future Health. She’s encouraging clinical colleagues to volunteer, to help them to see the programme’s future potential for transforming lung health.  

“And I’m asking everyone affected by a lung condition to volunteer for Our Future Health,” she adds. “If this is you, it’s really worth doing because Our Future Health is going to be a game-changer for lung health research.”  

Let’s prevent disease together

By volunteering for Our Future Health, you can help health researchers discover new ways to prevent, detect and treat common conditions such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, stroke and Alzheimer’s.

Find out moreJoin Our Future Health now