UK researchers claim they may have discovered a new way to tackle life-threatening asthma exacerbations.
A study, which sought to explain why the common cold could bring on life-threatening asthma attacks, has been hailed as an “exciting” potential development in the treatment of the chronic illness.
A team from the Medical Research Council and Asthma UK Centre in Allergic Mechanisms of Asthma at Imperial College London and King’s College London, has identified a possible sequence of biological events that could trigger these attacks.
“This research, although still at an early stage, could potentially lead to the development of new medicines to prevent life-threatening asthma attacks”
They have confirmed that a small molecule – called IL-25 – may play a key role in the effects of rhinoviruses , which are the main cause of the common cold, on asthmatics.
The hope is that if scientists can target and block IL-25, this will stop the cascade of events and potentially produce a much greater therapeutic effect.
Joint study author Dr Nathan Bartlett, an honorary lecturer at the National Heart and Lung Institute, Imperial College London, said: “Our research has shown for the first time that the cells that line the airways of asthmatics are more prone to producing a small molecule called IL-25, which then appears to trigger a chain of events that causes attacks.
“By targeting this molecule at the top of the cascade, we could potentially discover a much-needed new treatment to control this potentially life-threatening reaction in asthma sufferers,” he said.
The team compared cells taken from the lungs of asthmatics to cells from healthy volunteers and demonstrated that, when infected with a rhinovirus, asthmatic lung cells produced around 10-fold higher levels of IL-25.
Tests also included simulating asthma in mice which suggested that finding ways to try and block IL-25 could be a target for possible treatments to prevent asthma attacks.
The study findings have been published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.
Asthma attacks remain a huge healthcare problem. There are 235 million people who suffer from asthma worldwide and asthma is the most common noncommunicable disease among children, according to the World Health Organization.
There are 5.4 million people in the UK receiving treatment for asthma - that is one in every 12 adults and one in every 11 children.
The next steps are to test blocking IL-25 in humans, and to investigate other possible pathways that could be important in asthma attacks and pool this knowledge to develop effective treatments, according to joint study author Professor Sebastian Johnston, from the National Heart and Lung Institute at Imperial College London.
He said: “Existing medication containing inhaled steroids are highly effective at controlling regular asthma symptoms, but during an attack the symptoms worsen and can lead to the patient going to hospital.
“This new study provides exciting results about potential ways to address this big unmet medical need,” he added.
Dr Samantha Walker, research and policy director at Asthma UK, said: “Excitingly, this research, although still at an early stage, could potentially lead to the development of new medicines to prevent life-threatening asthma attacks.
“Years of research underfunding means that asthma still remains a relative mystery and the millions of people with asthma need more studies like this to bring us one step closer to new treatments,” she said.
“Promisingly, we now have new technologies, talented asthma scientists and international collaborations, with the potential to make life-changing discoveries about asthma,” she added.