Research at Swansea University Medical School has led to a new technology that could lead to the earlier diagnosis of one of the most common lung diseases in Wales.

The research, led by Professor Paul Lewis, looked into chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which last year killed more than 1,900 people in Wales.

Clinical trials are now being undertaken, in collaboration with Cwm Taf University Health Board. If successful, it could lead to the technology being used to help diagnose and monitor the condition which affects more than 330 million people around the world COPD is caused by smoking cigarettes or being exposed to tobacco smoke. Those affected suffer from irritated and inflamed lungs, scarring of the lungs, a breakdown of lung tissue and a narrowing of airways. The condition is irreversible but symptoms, which include breathlessness, a persistent cough and regular chest infections, can be treated. If the causes can be eliminated the disease can be slowed, leading to improved quality of life for the sufferer. But if it goes untreated patients are likely to require frequent hospitalisations, costing the NHS £4bn a year.

Professor Paul Lewis demonstrating the equipment being used in the clinical trials

Professor Lewis said: “Where COPD is present, the surface of molecules within a sample of sputum (coughed up mucus) contains a specific configuration of sugars. We discovered that by shining beams of infra-red light onto a sample, you could detect COPD from the unique frequency of infrared light bouncing off the sample.”

Professor Lewis received support for developing the technology from InvestorG8, a Swansea University programme designed to help bring innovative ideas closer to commercial readiness.

The money was used to develop a disposable sample strip that can be used in conjunction with a handheld infrared device, to make it easier for clinicians and patients to diagnose and monitor COPD.

Now a new company, PulmonIR Ltd, has been set up to take the idea further and has received a capital grant from the Welsh Government, along with investment from a syndicate that includes IP Group, the Development Bank of Wales and the Swansea University Innovation Fund.

Once the preliminary clinical trials have been completed, more investment will be needed to complete the development of a clinically validated system that can be put on sale in the UK and overseas. The trials, which began in August, are being done in collaboration with Dr Sadiyah Hand of Cwm Taf University Health Board.

Vaughan Gething, Cabinet Secretary for Health, Well-being and Sport, said: “This technology could speed up diagnosis and improve monitoring of COPD, which could bring real benefits to patients. Not only could this help the NHS work more efficiently, but the spin-out company has the potential to bring economic benefits and high-value jobs to Wales.”

Dr Mark Bowman, CEO of PulmonIR, said: “I have been involved with Professor Lewis for some time, having previously managed the InvestorG8 investment readiness initiative on behalf of Swansea University. Prof Lewis and I will be working closely with Dr Sadiyah Hand to deliver the preliminary clinical trial results. At this point, PulmonIR should be well-placed to secure the necessary regulatory approvals that are essential for launching a commercial product into the international healthcare markets.”

Capital Law worked with PulmonIR in completing the investment deal. Ms Laura Herdman, corporate solicitor at Capital Law in Cardiff, said: “I very much enjoyed working with Paul and Mark in completing the investment in PulmonIR. Capital Law places a strong emphasis on advising early-stage companies with their investment transactions. It is particularly pleasing to be working with a Welsh medical device company.”