A protein in our pancreas and lungs could help treat asthma

Research using animal models and human tissue samples found a new potential avenue of treatment for asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Human alveolar tissue seen under the microscope.
Image credits Yale Rosen / Flickr.

An international research team reports that activation of a protein called free fatty acid receptor 4 (FFA4) in lung tissue can help reverse hallmark symptoms of asthma such as inflammation and obstruction of the airways in patients resistant to current treatments.

While the effect has not yet been confirmed in living human patients, the results warrant continued research into drugs that can target and interact with this protein, say the authors.

A breath of fresh air

“By the identification of this new mechanism we offer the hope for new effective medicines for those patients that are not responsive to our current treatments,” says Professor Christopher Brightling, an author on the paper from the University of Leicester.

The study identifies an existing class of medication that can interact with the FFA4 protein in model animals and human tissue samples to address the condition. FFA4 is found in cells in the gut and pancreas and helps to control blood glucose levels. Dietary fats, most notably omega 3 oils from fish, are known to activate this protein.

First, the team found that this protein is also present in lung tissues, which they called “surprising”. Furthermore, they found that activating FFA4 in mouse lung tissue causes smooth muscle surrounding the airways to relax, allowing more air to flow in. This effect also worked to reduce inflammation caused by exposure to pollution, cigarette smoke, or allergens. Cells in human lung tissue reacted in a similar way, they add.

Because this mechanism is different from the ones used for current asthma and COPD medication, it could prove to be an effective avenue of treatment for unresponsive or severe cases.

“It was indeed a surprise to find that by targeting a protein — which up to now has been thought of as being activated by fish oils in our diet — we were able to relax airway muscle and prevent inflammation,” says Andrew Tobin, Professor of Molecular Pharmacology at the University of Glasgow. “We are optimistic that we can extend our findings and develop a new drug treatment of asthma and COPD.”

With air pollution reaching worrying levels across the world, asthmatic patients are likely to see worsening symptoms. Such medication could help complement our current treatments to help preserve their health and quality of life.

The paper, “Pathophysiological regulation of lung function by the free fatty acid receptor FFA4,” has been published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

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