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Scope 45 - Identifying Targets for More Specific Asthma Therapies

22 July 2011

Asthma is the world’s most common chronic disease in children and its prevalence in New Zealand is amongst the highest in the world.

Current asthma treatments usually involve the use of non-specific immune suppressive agents such as corticosteroids.  However, although these treatments are effective at reducing the immediate symptoms of asthma, their impact is not specific to the asthmatic immune response and can leave patients more susceptible to common infections such as influenza.

Understanding the signals that trigger the initiation of asthma is critical for the development of treatments that selectively suppress only the asthmatic immune response. Until now our knowledge of these early events has been lacking because we haven’t had the tools to study them. 

By taking advantage of the recent advances in flow cytometry capability however, Prof Graham Le Gros’ Asthma and Allergic Diseases research group has been able to identify a unique population of dendritic cells that are capable of initiating what is known as a Th2 immune response – the type experienced by those with asthma. 

Dendritic cells function like sentinels, patrolling the body and alerting the immune system to the presence of germs and other potential threats.  There are many different classes of dendritic cells, each varying in their surface structure, location in the body and function.  Those identified by Prof Le Gros’ team however are particularly interesting because of their highly specific ability to drive a Th2 immune response.  This makes them potential targets for the development of vaccines and therapies that can be used to specifically treat the asthmatic immune response without impacting on the rest of the immune system.