Asthma cure only five years away?
Many of the 5.4 million people in Britain suffering with asthma would probably think an outright cure for the lung condition is something that will simply never happen in their lifetime. However, this is exactly what could occur in the next five years after scientists claim to have discovered what may be the root cause of asthma, leading to a breakthrough for treatment in the near future – not just for asthma, but maybe for chronic bronchitis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) too. Scientists from Cardiff University and Kings College London were involved in the research that was partly funded by charity Asthma UK, and believe they have pinpointed which cells cause the airways to become more narrow after being triggered by a variety of potential irritants such as dust, pollen or smoke. Asthma is a debilitating long-term lung condition that can give unpleasant symptoms for those with the condition such as coughing, wheezing, tightness of the chest and breathlessness. Asthma inhalers such as brown preventers and blue relievers such as Ventolin can regulate symptoms, but almost 5% of asthmatics do not respond to treatment. Although it has been long known that asthma is caused by inflammation of the small tubes (bronchi) responsible for transporting air to and from the lungs, meaning the bronchi are more inflamed and sensitive than normal, why this happens has not been fully understood. Researchers conducted experiments on mice and human airway tissue and discovered that calcium sensing receptor (CaSR ) cells – present to detect changes in the environment – are at a higher level in asthmatics, triggering airway twitching, inflammation, and narrowing. Remarkably, the new discovery has come about purely by chance, after lead investigator Professor Daniela Riccardi switched from the study of osteoporosis to studying the lungs five years ago and realised that a protein (CaSR) that is responsible for triggering the growth of calcium in bones was also active in our airways. When an asthmatic breathes in any of the aforementioned triggers that happen to induce their asthma symptoms, the CaSR molecules rapidly increase the amount of calcium in lung tissue cells, causing the cells to contract, the airways to spasm, and a resulting asthma attack. Professor Riccardi said: “For the first time we have found a link between airways inflammation, which can be caused by environmental triggers - such as allergens, cigarette smoke and car fumes – and airways twitchiness in allergic asthma. It makes the cells much more sensitive to the asthma triggers - which then make an attack much more likely.” However, tests on the mice found that a class of drugs known as calcilytics – first created for the treatment of progressive bone disease osteoporosis – were shown to deactivate the CaSR cells and stops all symptoms. The team now hope have the drug within a nebuliser in the future, which would be turned into a mist and inhaled straight into the lungs. They are also optimistic that few courses of treatment may prevent recurring asthma attacks from happening and possibly be used in treating COPD and chronic bronchitis. Professor Riccardi said: “If we can prove that calcilytics are safe when administered directly to the lung in people, then in five years we could be in a position to treat patients and potentially stop asthma from happening in the first place.” Dr Samantha Walker, director of research at Asthma UK, who helped fund the research, commented: “This hugely exciting discovery enables us, for the first time, to tackle the underlying causes of asthma symptoms. “Five per cent of people with asthma don’t respond to current treatments so research breakthroughs could be life changing for hundreds of thousands of people. “If this research proves successful we may be just a few years away from a new treatment for asthma, and we urgently need further investment to take it further through clinical trials. “Asthma research is chronically underfunded; there have only been a handful of new treatments developed in the last 50 years so the importance of investment in research like this is absolutely essential.”