Could a gut parasite hold the cure for asthma?


Asthma UK is funding research, led by Professor John Britton, of the University of Nottingham, along with Dr Gail Davey and colleagues at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia, that studies over 1,000 children born in urban and rural areas of Butajira in southern Ethiopia to see whether infection of the gut with either hookworms or other gut parasites protects against developing asthma later in life.

Gut parasites, like the hookworm, have evolved ways of surviving the host's immune system by dampening it down. The suggestion is that this mechanism also dampens the host's immune responses to other invading bodies, such as the allergens that trigger asthma symptoms, thereby lessening the risk of fatal asthma attacks.

Britton has pioneered research in this area but this will be his first piece of research to study the relationship between asthma and gut parasite infection from birth, recording if and at which age the children become infected with parasites, what type of parasites they are infected with and the extent of the infection. The team will then be able to explore the relation between infection and the occurrence of asthma, allergy and eczema symptoms in Ethiopia, which has, traditionally, had much lower rates of all three conditions.

Professor Britton's research will tell us more about how and why asthma develops and the mechanisms behind it. This will provide a vital tool in understanding asthma and could lead to the development of new therapeutic approaches to treating the condition, mimicking the action of the gut parasites to reduce asthma sufferers' sensitivity to asthma triggers.

Additionally this research could have major implications for parasite eradication programmes currently under way in Africa, as interestingly the nations which have eradicated parasitic worm infections (the UK, USA, Australia and New Zealand) are also the countries with the highest rates of asthma in the world.
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First Published May 2008

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