May 2nd is World Asthma Day – an annual event organised by the Global Initiative for Asthma to improve asthma awareness and care around the world.
In honour of the day and those who suffer from asthma, we thought we would summarise some of the latest scientific research going into understanding what causes asthma and what might drive improvements in asthma care.
First of all – what is asthma?
Asthma is a chronic respiratory disease characterised by inflammation of the airways, leading to recurring episodes of wheezing, breathlessness, chest tightness, and coughing.
The challenge for people and health practitioners in dealing with asthma is that it is a complex disease with multiple triggers, and different people may be triggered differently. Some of the common triggers include:
- Allergens like chemicals or pollen;
- Pollutants in the air from cars and factories;
- Respiratory infections;
- Cold weather (cold air).
What is some of the latest research?
Genetics and epigenetics
Several recent studies have identified genetic and epigenetic factors (how the expression of your genes is modified by environmental factors) contribute to the development and progression of asthma.
One study, (read more here) identified 66 new areas of the genome associated with asthma risk. This may allow scientists to better understand whether these areas are associated with specific genes and then understand why they influence someone with asthma, potentially leading to better medicines.
Other studies have found that epigenetic modifications (which are modifications of our genes which don’t affect the genetic code), such as DNA methylation, play a critical role in regulating asthma-related genes.
For example, exposure to traffic-related air pollution was associated with increased DNA methylation in certain genes related to immune function, inflammation, and oxidative stress - which are all factors involved in the development and severity of asthma (read more here).
New Science on Air Pollution
Air pollution is a well-known trigger of asthma, and recent research has focused on understanding the mechanisms by which pollutants make asthma symptoms worse. One study found that exposure to air pollution leads to changes in the immune system that make individuals more susceptible to asthma (read more here).
Yep – we know we talk about the gut microbiota a lot and yes, indeed, recent research into the human microbiota (microorganisms that live in and on the human body) have been implicated in asthma.
One study found that the composition of the gut microbiome is different in children with asthma compared to healthy children (read more here) and in another study, a specific type of bacteria, lactobacilli was found to have protective effects against asthma by reducing inflammation in the airways. These findings suggest that modulating the microbiome may be a promising approach for asthma treatment (read more here).
World Asthma Day
As we acknowledge World Asthma Day and those who suffer from asthma – it’s worth noting some of the exciting research out there which might make a difference in the future.
It is likely a a multidisciplinary approach combining genetics, microbiology, immunology and lifestyle will keep improving treatments. It is also likely that medicines will also become more personalised and specific – termed “precision medicine” where medicines are matched with individual genetics and lifestyle factors.
Unfortunately, some of this research is still in its early days. But in the meantime we have a few blogs you can read which describe some of the things you can do yourself to keep improving lung function naturally (read more here and here).