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Antiviral properties could reduce risk of asthma attacks

EMBARGO: 18:00 13th August 2006
Issued by the Medical Research Council

Researchers have found that low levels of antiviral proteins are responsible for making people with asthma more likely to have a severe asthma attacks if they catch a common cold virus.

Scientists hope that the discovery of the proteins and their role, published today in Nature Medicine, will lead to a new method of asthma treatment. They are already patenting the technology to allow their finding to be quickly applied to treating people with asthma.

The team tested cells from the lungs of volunteers with and without asthma. They found that, when infected with a common cold virus (rhinovirus), the lung cells from people who have asthma produce half the levels of a newly identified family of interferons, proteins with antiviral properties generated by the immune system.

This antiviral deficiency increased the severity of asthma symptoms when the volunteers were given a common cold virus under experimental conditions. This is caused by the lower level of interferons heightening lung cell susceptibility to rhinovirus infection.

The researchers believe that uncovering this mechanism could lead to a whole new way of treating or preventing asthma attacks. They suggest that inhalers could be used to deliver extra interferon directly to the lungs to help the immune system fight viral infection.

Professor Sebastian Johnston Opens in new window, from Imperial College London and the MRC - Asthma UK Centre in Allergic Mechanisms of Asthma, said: "People with asthma are particularly susceptible to rhinoviruses, which are the major cause of severe asthma attacks. When we tested volunteers with and without asthma we found these new interferons, which would tackle the infection, were not being produced as effectively in people with asthma."

Professor Johnston added: "The discovery of this mechanism could be of huge importance in how we treat asthma attacks. Delivery of the deficient interferons by inhalers could be an ideal way to treat and prevent severe attacks of asthma, potentially vastly improving the quality of life for many asthma patients. We are already going into trials testing safety of delivering interferon by inhalation in asthma and intend to take this new technology forward swiftly to improve the medication available to people with asthma."

"The results will be of invaluable help in improving the treatment and care of people with asthma and we are proud to have supported it," says Helena Shovelton, Chief Executive of the British Lung Foundation.

"Professor Sebastian Johnston and his colleagues have identified a reason why people with asthma are more susceptible to rhinovirus infections which can cause asthma attacks. This important finding paves the way for developing new approaches to prevention and treatment. I am delighted that the work of the MRC-Asthma UK Centre will improve the health of many millions of people with asthma," says Professor Tak Lee, Director of the MRC Asthma UK Centre in Allergic Mechanisms and Asthma.

For further information, or to arrange an interview with Professor Johnston, please contact the MRC Press Office on 0207 637 6011 or out of hours on 07818 428 297.

Notes to editors:

1. Role of deficient type III interferon production in asthma exacerbations, Nature Medicine, available online August 13th 18:00 BST.

2. The MRC-Asthma UK Centre in Allergic Mechanisms of Asthma was launched in September 2005. The Centre is funded by the Medical Research Council and Asthma UK for an initial period of three years and directed by Professor Tak Lee, King's College, London and Professor Tim Williams, Imperial College, London. The three main aims of the Centre are to advance the understanding of allergic mechanisms in order to inform the development of new, effective and targeted treatments; provide high-quality, basic and clinical research training in allergy and asthma, and provide quality public information on allergy and asthma in conjunction with stakeholders and partners.

3. The British Lung Foundation is the only UK charity working for everyone affected by lung disease. The charity focuses its resources on providing support for people affected by lung disease today; and works in a variety of ways (including funding world-class research) to bring positive change, to improve treatment, care and support for people affected by lung disease in the future.

4. The researchers were from Imperial College London, University of Southampton, UK, University of Ferrara, Italy, University of Medicine and Dentistry New Jersey, and St Mary's NHS Trust.

5. The work was funded by the British Lung Foundation, the Medical Research Council, UK, the British Medical Association, the European Respiratory Society, Asthma UK, the National Health and Medical Research Council Australia and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, USA.