Press release: Southampton researchers use maths technique to diagnose lung diseases


Researchers in Southampton have pioneered a test using a maths technique and 3D imaging which could help to diagnose lung conditions more quickly and accurately.

A team of mathematicians at the University of Southampton and clinical researchers at the NIHR Southampton Biomedical Research Centre are using topology – a method used to study complex shapes – to analyse the structure of the lungs.

It involves using a computer program to turn a conventional 2D CT scan into a 3D image which then provides numerical characteristics of the bronchial tree – the branching system which transports air from the windpipe into the lungs.

The team used the technique to analyse 64 patients at University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust from four groups – healthy non-smokers, healthy smokers, patients with mild chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and patients with moderate COPD.

COPD is the name for a collection of lung diseases including bronchitis and emphysema and causes the airways in the lungs to become inflamed and narrowed, making it hard to breathe.

It is the second most common lung disease in the UK after asthma, affecting an estimated three million people – with two million of those undiagnosed and at risk of contracting a more severe form of the illness as they get older.

The method distinguished accurately between the different groups of patients, their individual lung function and the different stages of their conditions, with a larger more complex tree indicating better lung function and a smaller distorted tree indicating poorer lung function.

Currently, testing for lung conditions includes a spirometer to record the force and amount of air a patient can exhale and 2D CT scan images which are then interpreted using simple measures of lung density and thickness.

Researchers hope using this advanced technique to provide greater detail on the severity of individuals’ conditions could ensure the right treatment is delivered sooner.

Professor Jacek Brodzki“Until now, the severity of lung conditions has been assessed by using a spirometer – a device which measures the force and amount of air a patient can exhale – and standard 2D CT images,” said study lead Professor Jacek Brodzki, a professor of mathematics at the University of Southampton and lead scientist on the project.

“The images are then assessed by experienced specialists in examining and interpreting CT imagery, using relatively simple measures of lung density and bronchial wall thickness.

“Our study shows that this new method can expand on established techniques to give an accurate range of information about the lung function of individuals which could eventually aid decisions about the treatment of patients with serious lung conditions.”

Professor Ratko Djukanovic, a consultant in respiratory medicine at UHS and lead for respiratory and criticalDjukanovic, Dr Ratko (respiratory) photo care research, said: “This image analysis is the first to apply the field of topology in lung diseases and one of only a handful of studies of this kind in medicine.

“It is a real advance in analysis of CT images which adds to our understanding of the complex lung structure, especially in disease, and aids our ability to study the structural abnormalities of COPD, a complex disease that affects so many people and, sadly, results in significant morbidity and mortality.”

He added: “We’re now looking forward to developing this method for use in routine clinical care.”

Posted on Friday 14 September 2018