Irish researchers have made an important advance in understanding why Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease or emphysema can be passed down through generations.

Scientists at the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland and Beaumont Hospital have discovered how a protein, known as Alpha-1 Antitrypsin (AAT), which is produced by the liver, plays a significant role in reducing inflammation from white blood cells.

White blood cells defend against infection.

The study established that when it is released into the bloodstream, AAT protects lung tissue from disease.

Sufferers of the worst form of hereditary emphysema are deficient in Alpha-1 Antitrypsin (Alpha 1) as a result of a hereditary disorder.

The study revealed for the first time how a lack of Alpha-1 protein leads to increased levels of white blood cell proteins, which in turn cause an autoimmune response that produces harmful oxidants and cause COPD.

The research was published in this month's edition of the leading international scientific journal Science Translational Medicine.

The scientists, including RCSI Professor of Medicine Gerry McElvaney and Dr David Bergin and Dr Emer Reeves from the Respiratory Research Division of RCSI's Department of Medicine, also revealed how a treatment, known as augmentation therapy where Alpha-1 protein purified from blood is given intravenously, can ease the autoimmunity leading to the disease.

As a result, Prof McElvaney said the research gives new hope for a better quality of life for sufferers of this chronic condition and may also be applied to other autoimmune associated diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis.

Emphysema is caused by inflammation of the alveoli, the sponge-like tissues that take oxygen into the lungs, and cause shortness of breath.

In the worst cases, sufferers must use an oxygen mask and may need a lung transplant.

The research was funded by the Medical Research Charities Group/ Health Research Board, the Alpha One Foundation (Ireland) and the Alpha-1 Foundation (USA).