Nearly everyone knows someone who lives with asthma – it’s one of the most common lung conditions in the world, affecting some 300 million people. What many people may not know is the origin of this sometimes life-threatening affliction: asthma is an inflammatory disease.
This means that if scientists can discover the pathways that lead to an asthma attack, it may be possible to develop drugs that target the underlying causes of airway inflammation.
The hallmark symptoms of wheezing and shortness of breath arise from an inflammatory response that causes the chest muscles to tighten and the airways to become inflamed and constricted, and produce extra mucus. Breathing becomes difficult and, in severe cases, the asthma attack can prove fatal.
Path of most resistance
While many triggers can set off an attack – exercise, respiratory viruses, or exposure to cigarette smoke – the most common is an allergic reaction to airborne particles of pollen, mould or house dust mites.
Allergic asthma affects 10 per cent of Australians and is the one of the most common reasons for hospitalisation of children under five years of age.
There is no cure for asthma, so management of the condition focuses on controlling the symptoms, usually by the initial use of a steroid ‘puffer’ or ‘inhaler’. The only way to prevent some attacks is to avoid triggers.
In the search for better ways to treat asthma, researchers are trying to understand exactly how the inflammatory response to allergens works.
IMB’s Professor David Fairlie and colleagues have discovered proteins that activate immune system receptors, an action that in turn plays a significant role in setting off inflammation in an asthma attack.
Previous research had shown that one immune system receptor in the lungs plays a big role in the response that leads to an asthma attack.
What researchers didn’t know was exactly how this worked – something Professor Fairlie and his colleagues at IMB set out to better understand.
Once they learned how the receptor triggered lung inflammation leading to asthma, they were able to design and develop a potential new experimental drug that disrupts the action of the receptor.
What’s even more exciting for asthmatics is that this potential drug worked on mice when given orally. This could pave the way for a pill to stop the allergic asthma and associated inflammation in its tracks.
While that’s still some way off, and would require extensive clinical trials before being made available to patients, it does show that there may be new ways to tackle allergic asthma more effectively .
“Current treatments for allergic asthma in humans have major limitations,” Professor Fairlie said. '
“Our results show that there may be a new way to disrupt the inflammatory response in the lungs, which offers the promise of new and improved treatments in the future.”