Childhood Asthma – Research Tracks Role of Immune Response

Scientists have encouraged hope of a breakthrough in the treatment of childhood asthma with the publication of new research into the role of childhood immune-response in the development of the common chronic disease.

The Technical University of Denmark study, which was reported in the journal Science Translational Medicine, attempted to establish how childhood exposure to viruses, bacteria and fungi could influence and predict the development of asthma.

The team was led by Susanne Brix and tracked a group of 541 children from birth through to the age of six, paying particularly close attention to their immune cell activity through the toddler years.

One strategy involved taking blood samples from the children at 18 months to see how their immune cells would react when exposed to a range of compounds including viral cells and those drawn from vaccines.

Again and again, one type of cell showed itself to be a possible candidate for solving the mystery of asthma: the T helper cell.

In particular, when exposed to pathogens the T-helper cell released two types of proteins which are known to be disproportionately present in children who are diagnosed with asthma. Curiously, there seemed to also be some sex-specific difference in immune response. Although the infant female immune system responded more strongly to viruses, infant males responded more markedly to bacteria and fungi. The researchers said that this difference may suggest that endocrine response – i.e. so-called the sex hormones testosterone and oestrogen – may play a significant role in immune response and the development of asthma.

The Technical University of Denmark team hope that the findings could assist in the development of better treatments for asthma as well as in finding more effective ways of testing and predicting which children are at highest risk of developing the condition.

It may also lead to enhanced understanding of which cases of asthma are most likely to persist into adulthood and which are most likely to only be transient and specific to childhood.

Asthma in the UK

The UK’s asthma death rate is among Europe’s worst (it is around 50% higher than the average for the European Union). In fact, in the last five years, the death rate has risen by 20% in this country – each year more than 1,000 die as a result of an asthma attack. Asthma UK believes that there are two major causes for this: one is the lack of essential knowledge which leads many to underestimate the seriousness of asthma, another is the lack of essential care available to asthma sufferers in the UK. Nearly seven in ten asthma patients in the UK receive an inadequate level of asthma treatment from their healthcare professionals, with many missing out on annual reviews, ventolin inhaler instruction and a written asthma action plan.