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How molecules from parasitic worms could help prevent and treat asthma

Last updated

02/05/22

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Asthma is a common long-term lung condition affecting one in 12 people in the UK. Asthma symptoms, which can come and go over time, include shortness of breath, coughing and a tight chest.

Parasitic worms are fascinating creatures, and have developed sophisticated methods to control the immune response, in ways we are only beginning to understand.
Dr Henry McSorley

These symptoms are caused by inflammatory structural changes to the lungs - including airways becoming thicker and less flexible, muscles which constrict the airways becoming stronger and more easily stimulated, and increased production of mucous which can block or constrict the airways.

While there is currently no cure, symptoms can be managed effectively using treatments such as inhalers and by avoiding possible triggers - which can include pets, pollen, house dust mites, and pollution.

Dr Henry McSorley is a Medical Research Council-funded researcher and lecturer in immunology from the University of Dundee. He has been investigating the immune responses that cause asthma and how molecules from parasitic worms can control this.

Parasitic worms are complex organisms which can survive in our bodies for years, cleverly evading the immune system by releasing molecules to suppress its actions.

This suppression of the immune response by parasites has the useful side-effect that it can also suppress allergic diseases including asthma - as they are caused by similar types of immune responses as those designed to kill worms.

To date, Dr McSorley’s research has discovered several individual molecules in parasitic worms that can block critical aspects of the immune response which cause asthma.

Thanks to a new Enhancing Research Award from the Foundation, Dr McSorley will test the impact of four of these molecules in the lungs of mice, in the hope of developing new treatments for asthma in humans.

The first two molecules, known as ‘HpARI’ and ‘HpBARI’, act on the signals which start immune responses, while the second two molecules, ‘HpAPY’ and ‘HpDNAse’, act on signals released from cells which become damaged during asthmatic reactions. Researchers will administer each of these molecules individually and measure their impact on lung function and structure.

Commenting on the importance of this exploratory research Dr McSorley said:

“Parasitic worms are fascinating creatures, and have developed sophisticated methods to control the immune response, in ways we are only beginning to understand. This research will develop parasite-derived molecules towards new treatments for human asthma."

Find out more about our Enhancing Research Awards.