BIRMINGHAM, United Kingdom — One in 13 people in the United States is living with asthma. While steroids are the gold treatment for the condition, they only relieve symptoms temporarily. Now, however, a new animal study suggests there is a chance to return airways back to near normal. Researchers from Aston University found that targeting a stem cell in the airways reduced almost all asthmatic symptoms within two weeks.
Asthma causes airways to thicken and constrict, causing multiple respiratory symptoms such as wheezing and shortness of breath. Steroids provide short-term relief by relaxing the airways or decreasing inflammation. However, the lack of long-term relief is likely because no drug has been able to structurally change the lung and airways.
“By targeting the changes in the airway directly, we hope this approach could eventually offer a more permanent and effective treatment than those already available, particularly for severe asthmatics who don’t respond to steroids,” says Dr. Jill Johnson, the lead researcher of the study and professor at the School of Biosciences, in a university release. “However, our work is still at an early stage and further research is needed before we can begin to test this in people.”
Researchers set their sights on a particular type of stem cell called the pericyte. It’s located in the lining of blood vessels. When a person with asthma experiences an allergic or inflammatory response in reaction to airborne allergens, pericytes tend to move to the airway walls. Once they reach their destination, the pericytes differentiate into muscle cells and other cells to make airways thicker and less flexible.
Pericytes move to the airways with the help of a protein known as CXCL12. To prevent pericytes from traveling, the researchers deployed a molecule called LIT-927 into mice’s nasal passages to block the protein’s signal.
Mice modeling asthma and given LIT-927 saw their symptoms go away within a week. After two weeks, nearly all symptoms disappeared. When taking a look inside the lungs, they found mice receiving LIT-927 had significantly thinner airways that were similar to healthy control patients.
The team is planning on expanding on their current findings, with plans to increase the dosage to look at how much of LIT-927 is necessary to see a long-lasting effect. They will also study when the best time to administer the treatment is. If the studies continue to show positive results, there is a chance the treatment could reach human trials in a couple of years.
The study was published in the journal Respiratory Medicine.