Researchers say a protein identified in human lungs could be activated to help people with asthma breathe easier. They also cite the promising results of a first drug tested on mice.
Asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can cause swelling of the airways causing difficulty in breathing in affected patients. Asthma affects around 25 million people in the United States.
In a recent work, researchers at the University of Glasgow and the University of Technology in Sydney have discovered a new way to relieve both conditions.
Free fatty acid receptor 4 (FFA4) is a protein known to live in the intestine and pancreas. Previous research has already found that when activated by dietary fat, this receptor can help regulate blood glucose levels.
However, it seems that this protein is also nested in the human lung. Based on this observation, the researchers have developed a new class of drugs aimed at activating this FFA4 receptor in the lungs of mice raised to develop respiratory problems.
These treatments, according to the journal Science Translational Medicine, have been effective in reducing lung inflammation triggered by exposure to pollution, cigarette smoke and allergens such as dust mites. They also relaxed the muscles of the rodents’ airways, helping air to enter their lungs.
“We were surprised to find that by targeting a protein that until now was only activated by fish oils in our diet, we could relax the muscles of the airways and prevent inflammation,” explains the study author Andrew Tobin of the University of Glasgow. “We are optimistic about the possibility of expanding our findings and developing a new drug treatment for asthma and COPD,” he adds.
For Christopher Brightling, professor of respiratory medicine at the University of Leicester and co-author of the article, this new mechanism “offers hope for new effective drugs for patients who do not respond to our current treatments.”
Asthma is often treated by inhaling beta agonists such as ventolin, which relaxes the muscles and allows the patient to breathe more easily. However, this type of medication does not work very well for everyone. And, to date, there are few alternative options for relieving acute attacks.
Of course, there is still some way to go before the first human trials can be undertaken. Nonetheless, the identification of this hitherto unknown mechanism is promising.