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Scope 49 - ‘Punching’ holes and fruit punch - our next asthma therapies?

2 November 2012

As often happens in science, a stumbling block in one area of research can present a solution for another.

While working on the development of a dendritic cell cancer vaccine, Prof Franca Ronchese’s research team discovered that specialised cells called cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTL) were killing off the dendritic cells before they could do their job. Although this presented somewhat of a problem to the long-term effectiveness of the cancer vaccine, it raised the possibility that CTL killing of dendritic cells could be used to turn off unwanted immune responses – such as those that cause asthma.

Asthma remains one of the most prevalent allergic diseases in the world. It is a chronic inflammatory disease of the airways, characterised by wheezing, coughing, chest tightness and shortness of breath.

It is the influx of immune cells into the airways that causes the symptoms of asthma. If we can stop this from happening, then in theory, we can prevent the development of an asthma attack. Previous research had shown that activated CTLs can prevent airway inflammation, but we didn’t know how. Prof Ronchese’s research has now revealed that activated CTLs can kill allergen-presenting dendritic cells in the airways by effectively ‘punching’ holes in them, through release of a pore-forming protein called perforin. With fewer dendritic cells around to activate the disease-mediating Th2 cells in the airways, there is consequently less allergic airway inflammation. Identifying how best to target the activity of these cells with immunotherapy is the subject of ongoing investigation.

We all know fruit is good for us; it is loaded with fibre and vitamins and tastes great too. But did you know that some fruits might actually help reduce the lung inflammation associated with asthma? In collaboration with Plant & Food Research, Dr Jacquie Harper and her Arthritis and Inflammation team have shown that certain fruits can reduce the influx of damage-causing inflammatory cells into the lung in experimental models of asthma. This is an exciting area of research that could lead to the development of fruit-based foods for improving the management of inflammatory conditions such as asthma


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