Legendary Lung Group Gathers Down Under

The world's best breathing experts jet into Sydney this week, half a century after their founders first gathered to unravel the mysteries of respiratory health.

Calling themselves the Flow-Volume Underworld, they are the top respiratory researchers and physicians in the area of lung physiology in the world.

Much of what is known today about the lungs and how they work is owed to the group of pioneering scientists who first met in Baltimore in 1964 to investigate the inner workings of lung mechanics.

The underworld was founded by respiratory godfathers including Americans Jere Mead, Peter Macklem, Robert Hyatt and Sol Permutt, who were joined in years to come by a raft of other celebrated specialists whose names have adorned some of the most important clinical papers published in the field of lung health.

They would meet regularly in North America and Europe to puzzle over scientific mysteries and celebrate their discoveries. Their breakthroughs were many and varied, but none more significant than the development of the flow-volume curve, a tool which has become the gold standard for measuring airway narrowing in medicine.

They also uncovered the problem of disease of the small airways, a concept that triggered research into new puffers that specifically target airways in the deepest parts of the lung. This will benefit patients with asthma, COPD and other airways diseases.

Their discoveries now form a key part of modern day respiratory health care, helping babies born with often fatal respiratory distress, asthmatics, smokers and those suffering the common night time breathing condition obstructive sleep apnea.

Australia's own Ann Woolcock, after whom Sydney's Woolcock Institute of Medical Research is named, attended the third meeting in 1968, aged just 30. She would go on to become one of the world's pre-eminent asthma researchers, revolutionising understanding of the mechanisms and consequences of the physiology of airway obstruction of acute asthma.

While these original pioneers have since retired or passed away, the group lives on among the next generation of world-leading respiratory researchers who meet in Australia for the first time this week.

The two-day meeting, the first ever in the southern hemisphere, will tackle the big issues of lung function today, including lung transplants, lung injury, new treatments for asthma and how to make lungs last well into old age.

The Flow-Volume Underworld conference, to be held on March 25 and 26, will be hosted by the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research.