Winter is upon us and many people will be suffering from colds and coughs. However, very few of these coughs will be as severe as those experienced by asthma patients year-round. Asthma is a debilitating syndrome where people experience coughing, wheezing and airway constrictions that can lead to hospitalization and even death. The development of asthma is poorly understood, but research is currently underway in Flanders to study the causes of the syndrome.
People have been aware of asthma for thousands of years, but it’s prevalence has been particularly on the rise since the 1960’s. Asthma affects over 300 million people worldwide, and asthma attacks lead to almost 400 thousand deaths every year, which is more than 1000 deaths every day. In Europe, the syndrome affects 8-12% of the population, including men, women and children.
With a longstanding knowledge about asthma and its alarming growth rates, it may be surprising to discover that our understanding is limited at best. Dr Andrew Brown, a researcher at VIB-UGent, is determined to change this. “We know that asthma is not a simple disease” he says. “We are working on understanding the fundamental immunological mechanisms of the disorder.”
The development of asthma can be triggered by environmental factors and is typically associated with poor air quality, such as that found in an environment affected by smoking or pollution, or the exposure to allergens such as dust mites. Although we know what can trigger the development of asthma, we don’t know how exactly this reaction works.
Broadly speaking, there are two types of asthma. In the more common allergic form, a person exposed to a particular allergen will develop a sensitivity to that allergen, turning it into a trigger. However, in the environmental form, an attack can also be triggered by a range of different environmental factors in addition to the initial allergen. Living with this environmental form of asthma is incredibly challenging as you never know what will trigger a potentially fatal asthma attack.
Finding a cure
At VIB-UGent, Prof Bart Lambrecht and Prof Hamida Hammad have been leading a research group for the last 20 years whose purpose is to investigate the fine molecular and cellular processes involved in asthma development. Using European house dust mites as a tool, the team has discovered a link between asthma development and memory T cells in the lungs. “In the case of asthma induced by dust mites, the immune cells are often reacting to different types of stimuli, just as they would to the allergens they were originally exposed to,” Dr Brown explains. “This reaction is the root of the development of environmental asthma. My research aims to understand how exposure to dust mites might lead to memory cells becoming resident in the lungs, and how this in turn might cause asthma upon re-exposure to other allergens or environmental stimuli.”
To understand the process, Dr. Brown is examining the pulmonary immune cells of asthmatic mice after exposure to common allergens. These resident memory cells provide protection against certain types of infections, such as bacterial, parasitic, and viral, but these cells seem to overreact in the case of allergic asthma. “We plan to take a deeper look at the the types of genes that enable these cells to become resident in the lung tissue to understand what makes them trigger asthmatic episodes. We are trying to pinpoint the pathways we can use to manipulate and hopefully dampen that allergic response.”
No cure for asthma exists; only symptomatic treatments are available, and these treatment options are not omnipotent. Many asthmatics must go to the hospital multiple times over the course of their lives to address their respiratory problems.
Still, there is good news for asthmatics. Scientists, such as Dr. Brown, are working toward a solution. “If we understand how the memory cells trigger recurrent asthma, we may be able to manipulate them through therapeutic intervention or vaccination to help aid symptoms or potentially prevent the onset of the syndrome altogether.”
Though the work is still in its infancy, Dr. Brown and his colleagues at VIB expect to see results within the next 12 months. “Every bit of progress is a step in the right direction, and we are building toward something that will hopefully help millions of people lead better lives.”