University of Bath scientists have identified a possible new cause of asthma that, if treated, could potentially prevent the 1100 UK deaths a year.

5 - 10% of asthma sufferers don't repond to drugs - Image by:  Alvi Mann

Asthma affects around 300 million people worldwide by closing of the airways in response to environmental factors such as: dust, spores and pollution.  In severe cases, the allergy can lead to breathlessness and even death.  

Although most patients with asthma can be treated with inhaled medication, approximately 5-10 per cent of patients do not respond to these drugs. These individuals are classified as severe asthmatics and are the most likely to suffer from asthma attacks.  It is this group that the University’s  Department of Pharmacy and Pharmacology hope will be helped by their findings.

Professor Mark Lindsay, from the Department of Pharmacy and Pharmacology, said, “Our research team has identified a novel mechanism that might underlie severe asthma. In collaboration with researchers from Imperial College, the University of Manchester and Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, we have found that patients with severe asthma show activation of a specific group of immune cells, called CD8+ T-cells.”

The research was funded by Asthma UK, a charity dedicated to improving the health and well-being of asthma sufferers in Britain.

Leanne Metcalf, Director of Research at Asthma UK, says: “Asthma develops because of a complicated relationship between a person’s genetic make-up and the environment they are exposed to. Although asthma affects over 5.4 million people in the UK, we still don’t know precisely what causes it and why some people suffer so badly with their asthma symptoms. Therefore it’s really exciting for us to learn about specific differences in the way genes are activated in people with severe asthma and once we know why this occurs, we can attempt to develop new treatments that work in entirely different ways. This will be a real step forwards in freeing people from the restrictive and frightening effects of asthma symptoms which existing treatments cannot currently help them to overcome.”

The research team is now looking to attract funding to study the reasons why CD8+ T-cells are switched on in sufferers of severe asthma.

Professor Lindsay said: “We need to determine why CD8+ is switched on, in order to understand whether it is a cause of extreme asthma or whether it is suffering with extreme asthma that switches it on.  If it is a cause and we are able to target the activation of these immune cells using drugs, we might be able to prevent the switching on of CD8+ and provide a novel approach to the treatment of severe asthma.”

The research published in the world’s leading allergy journal, the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.