GROUNDBREAKING research into one of the most common deadly diseases could hold the key to new treatments for sufferers.

Researchers at Oxford University and the Churchill Hospital are embarking on a new two-year clinical trial into how boosting the body’s iron levels can help people living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

The study comes after doctors found one-in-five sufferers had iron deficiency, leading to more difficulty exercising and more frequent flare-ups of shortness of breath, wheezing and coughing.

If the new study demonstrates a causal link, iron therapy treatments could be used to help patients.

Widower Richard Hayes has been smoking for more than 50 years and was diagnosed with COPD in 2011, following a bad cough which developed into pneumonia.

The 66-year-old, of Desborough Crescent, Rose Hill, said that by taking part in the initial study he now monitors his condition more and needs less medication.

He added: “I really enjoyed it. It helps me keep on top of my condition.

“When I was diagnosed I thought I just had a bad cough. I have always been a smoker.

“I went through bad patches so cut down and it went away.”

Mr Hayes was one of the first group of COPD sufferers to be monitored for the initial phase of research, in which some were injected with iron supplements and others a placebo.

However, Mr Hayes said that he no longer needed his emergency inhaler since the study and has been getting by on his regular two doses a day.

He added: “I feel better at the moment than I have for a long, long time. As part of the study I have to keep a record of my breathing and oxygen levels and it helps me be aware of my ups and downs.”

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the name for a collection of lung diseases including chronic bronchitis, emphysema and chronic obstructive airways disease.

Researchers are recruiting 48 Oxfordshire patients to take iron intravenously for two years.

They hope it will prove that higher iron levels help people with the disease.

Professor Peter Robbins from the University of Oxford, who is leading the research, funded by the NIHR Oxford Biomedical Research Centre, hopes it will lead to further research into iron therapies for COPD sufferers.

He said: “We were really quite surprised how big the differences in oxygen levels were between patients with low iron and those with normal iron levels.

“We checked to see if it was simply a case of patients with lower oxygen levels having more severe lung disease, but we found that iron deficiency in fact had an effect in its own right.

“The amount of oxygen in the blood is a strong predictor of life expectancy in COPD, so these findings are potentially very significant for patients.

“We’ve known for some time that iron was likely to be very important for people living with lung disease.”

Since 2004/5, the number of people living with COPD has rocketed from 5,851 to 8,411, with nearly one million people across England diagnosed with the disease.

Although one patient dies every 20 minutes from the condition in England, it is estimated that only one in three sufferers has been diagnosed.