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Reversing asthma’s effects on the lungs

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People with asthma often have inflammation in their lungs, which can be made worse by triggers such as allergens or pollution.

For most people with asthma, inhalers can be used to reduce inflammation in the lungs – but this doesn’t work for everyone. The level and type of inflammation can vary between people with severe asthma, and those with milder forms of the disease. This is important, as researchers need to understand what biological processes lead to different types of airway inflammation, in order to develop better treatments.

If we can stop or even reverse these structural changes in the lungs, that’s really quite exciting in the context of potential new therapies.

Tara Sutherland Profile Pic Dr Tara Sutherland

With funding from the Foundation and Asthma UK, Dr Tara Sutherland from the University of Manchester has been studying the behaviour of cells involved in inflammation, to determine why asthma is more severe in some people compared to others. Specifically, this includes a group of proteins – called chitinase-like proteins (CLPs) – that are known to be produced in higher levels in the lungs of people with asthma.

Severe asthma affects around four per cent of people with asthma, which amounts to more than 200,000 people in the UK alone.

Many current treatments don’t work well in patients with severe disease, possibly due to differences in types of inflammation. Dr Sutherland’s research is exploring how chitinase-like proteins (CLPs) cause inflammation, and whether they contribute to structural changes in the lungs.

“In asthma, the architecture of the lungs can change in ways that make airways narrower and the lung structure stiffer, making it harder to breathe,” says Dr Sutherland.

“We already know that if you treat inflammation successfully in some people with asthma, you can make lung function better. But in people with severe asthma, they may not recover fully, and we think that’s got a lot to do with remodeling of the lungs. My research is investigating ways of reversing these structural changes in order to improve lung function.”

Image indicates high concentration of CLPs (shown here in yellow and red) in mice. CLPs are known to cause inflammation, and could also contribute to structural changes in the lungs.

Dr Sutherland’s initial findings are promising. Her research in mice indicates that inhibiting or stopping the CLPs from working could actually reverse the structural changes seen in severe asthma. The challenge now is translating these findings into people, and that’s the next step in Dr Sutherland’s research – analysing lung samples taken from people with severe asthma, to see if the findings in mice are reflected in humans.

“If we can stop or even reverse these structural changes in the lungs, that’s really quite exciting in the context of potential new therapies,” says Dr Sutherland. “Crucially, we know the structure of CLPs, so this makes it easier to try and develop drugs to target these proteins. However, we first need to know much more about the remodeling process in asthma, and specifically what structural changes are happening in the lungs and airways. This will give us a better idea of the specific processes that can be targeted for potential treatments.

“We know that asthma is not just one condition, but that there are many different types of asthma with many different changes occurring in to lungs. Asking questions about early events in the development of asthma, later inflammation and airway remodeling, will give us a more complete picture of what’s going on in people with severe asthma. All of which moves us closer to developing treatments which stop inflammation and remodeling from occurring in the first place.”

In collaboration with Asthma UK, we’ve funded over £900,000 of research into the underlying causes of asthma. Find out more.

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