Scientists discover root cause of asthma

Scientists hope asthmatics will one day be able to throw away their inhalers Keystone Archive

Swiss scientists claim to have discovered what causes the bronchial muscles of asthma sufferers to expand, making it difficult for them to breathe.

This content was published on August 5, 2004 minutes

The team at Basel University say their research could lead to a cure for a disease which affects up to 150 million people worldwide.

Details of the research findings were published on Thursday in the “New England Journal of Medicine”.

Michael Tamm, head of respiratory medicine at Basel University, told swissinfo that the scientific investigations had focused on determining the causes of muscle expansion.

“We discovered why the bronchial muscles grow so much, and that is because they are missing a factor called ‘CEBP-alpha’ which… serves to limit the expansion.”

Until now scientists have been unable to explain the lung abnormality that causes asthma.


Tamm said the breakthrough came when his team – in conjunction with scientists from Sydney University in Australia – succeeded in correcting the defective muscle cells.

“We removed bronchial muscle cells from asthmatics, put them into cell culture flasks and watched them grow,” he said.

“But when we introduced the missing factor into the diseased asthmatic cells, we found that [the muscles stabilised].”

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that asthma is responsible for 180,000 deaths each year. It says the number of people suffering from the disease is increasing by 50 per cent every decade.

The disease can be controlled using inhalers, but there is no cure and the vast majority of asthmatics rely on medication throughout their lives.

Search for cure

According to the research team in Basel, the next step is to develop a treatment which would correct the defective muscle cells and permanently prevent them from expanding and constricting breathing.

“At the moment asthma can only be controlled by [temporarily] suppressing the inflammation of the bronchial muscles. But if people stop taking the medication, the asthma reappears,” said Tamm.

“What we have learned is that there might be options not just to treat the symptoms but also to find a cure.”

According to the Geneva-based WHO, around eight per cent of the Swiss population suffer from asthma. Less than three decades ago, the figure stood at just two per cent.

But Tamm warns that asthmatics should not expect a cure for “some years”, because any new medication would need to be rigorously tested in clinical trials.

“Of course [a cure] is not going to become available overnight, but we do now know what cells we need to target.”

swissinfo, Ramsey Zarifeh

Key facts

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), up to 150 million people worldwide suffer from asthma.
The WHO estimates that 180,000 people die from asthma each year.
Around 8% of the Swiss population suffer from asthma, up from just 2% less than 30 years ago.

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