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Researchers may have found key to preventing asthma
Researchers at the Wal-yan Respiratory Research Centre have made a world-first discovery into how to prevent severe respiratory infections in babies – a breakthrough which will influence future clinical trials, including a major ongoing trial in the US aimed at preventing asthma.
It’s one of the scariest things a parent can be confronted with: a tiny child struggling to breathe.
Respiratory issues such as wheezing or difficulty breathing are one of the most common medical issues driving parents of babies and young children to hospital emergency departments every winter.
Typically caused by a viral infection, for some children these episodes can develop into a severe lung infection – a complication often linked to development of asthma later in life.
Now, breakthrough findings from a study carried out by researchers at the Wal-yan Centre – a powerhouse partnership between Telethon Kids Institute, Perth Children’s Hospital and Perth Children’s Hospital Foundation – suggest babies’ immune systems could be fortified early on to help head off this kind of outcome.
Led by PhD student Niamh Troy, of the Wal-yan Centre and The University of Western Australia, with a team including senior researchers Pat Holt, Deborah Strickland and Anthony Bosco, the study investigated how babies’ immune systems can be
boosted in the first winter of their life to help fight off lung infections.
The study built on the findings of a 2019 clinical trial with collaborators at The University of Queensland, which showed OM-85 – an immune-boosting medication that contains a mixture of dead bacteria – protected babies from severe lung infections.
“Severe respiratory viral infections in early life are linked to asthma development later in life,” Dr Troy said.
“To pinpoint how the treatment worked, we studied how these babies’ immune systems reacted when faced with a range of infections.”
She said babies who received OM-85 displayed a number of key changes to their first line defences, including a mild boosting of ‘interferons’ – proteins that are critical early in an infection. They also had reduced amounts of inflammatory proteins, which can be damaging when levels get too high.
Essentially, we found the treatment ‘trained’ the babies’ immune defences.
Dr Niamh Troy
She said the results – which have the potential to inform treatments for a range of inflammatory conditions, even beyond respiratory disease – suggested that in OM-85 researchers had found the first plausible preventative for asthma in its early stages.
“We are excited and motivated by our findings, and looking forward to moving this work to the next phase,” Dr Troy said.
“An important next step is to understand what cell types of the immune system are responsible for these protective changes, and what modes of delivery (inhaled or ingested) are most effective.
“Answering these key questions will allow us to continue to push forward on our goal of preventing asthma in children.”
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► Dr Troy’s study is already having an impact, with her findings providing researchers at The University of Arizona with a roadmap to interpret a trial which is investigating whether OM-85 treatment in early life can prevent severe lung infections and asthma. The trial has recruited 822 children aged 6–18 months and will track them until age 7, with results to be published thereafter.
►Dr Troy explained that there were a number of sub-groups of asthma, with each group having a different immune system pattern that may drive asthma development. Very large trials, such as the University of Arizona’s trial, are required to identify these sub-groups. The team in that trial will use her research to identify the participants, and asthma sub-group, whose immune systems experience relevant changes.
► “Our work will help to guide the investigators on what protective immune changes to look out for, which can help to develop and tailor optimal treatments for each sub-group,” Dr Troy said.