Advance planning for a ‘flu pandemic will be one focus of a new Centre for Respiratory Infection launched at Imperial College London in the UK.

Funded by a £3.4 million award from the Wellcome Trust, the centre will bring together more than 200 scientists to tackle issues ranging from how common cold viruses cause disease and affect long-term health to how vaccines can be better designed to prevent lung infections.

Researchers at the centre are also establishing a clinical team of doctors and researchers to help control any future flu pandemic both quickly and effectively. If such an outbreak does strike, doctors will only be able to get the best treatments to patients if they can first analyse the flu strain and determine which therapies are going to work, Imperial College points out.

Usually, planning and setting up the necessary trials to deliver this information would take months, it adds. The Centre for Respiratory Infection will do its planning in advance, so that researchers can get to work before the epidemic spreads too far and to ensure doctors on the ground are fully prepared.

The researchers concerned will work closely with colleagues at Imperial College Healthcare NHS (National Health Service) Trust and the MRC (Medical Research Council) Centre for Outbreak Analysis and Modelling at Imperial College London, as well as with other scientists and government agencies around the world.

Another project at the new centre will look at why the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) leads to severe cases of the lung infection viral bronchiolitis in some babies while the majority recover with ease. RSV is the main single cause of hospitalisation in babies under one year of age.

Researchers at Imperial College have already made a number of important discoveries about RSV, including a study in 2004 that showed the virus can “hit and hide”, surviving in the body for months or years, the College notes. The researchers are now investigating whether recurrent wheezing in children could be caused by RSV hiding in the lungs.

Respiratory disease “has never been as well funded as it deserves to be, considering the impact it has on health”, commented Professor Peter Openshaw from Imperial College’s National Heart and Lung Institute, who is director of the Centre for Respiratory Infection.

“Respiratory infections are at the root of many of the diseases that we treat every day,” he added. “This new initiative is a great opportunity to get something done.”