Asthma is one of the most common allergic diseases and affects around 300 million people worldwide. It is associated with closure of the airways in response to environmental factors, leading to breathlessness.

Now scientists in the University’s Department of Pharmacy & Pharmacology have found a new underlying cause of severe asthma, which could help in developing a new treatment for the disease and eventually save lives.

The research has been published in the world’s leading allergy journal, the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

Although most patients with asthma can be treated with inhaled medication, approximately 5-10 per cent of patients do not respond to these drugs. These individuals are classified as severe asthmatics and are the most likely to suffer from asthma attacks, leading to hospitalisation and even death.

Professor Mark Lindsay, from the Department of Pharmacy and Pharmacology, said: “Our research team has identified a novel mechanism that might underlie severe asthma.

“In collaboration with researchers from Imperial College, the University of Manchester and Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, we have found that patients with severe asthma show activation of a specific group of immune cells, called CD8+ T-cells.”

The research team is now looking to attract funding to study the reasons why CD8+ T-cells are switched on in sufferers of severe asthma.

Professor Lindsay added: “We need to determine why CD8+ is switched on, in order to understand whether it is a cause of extreme asthma or whether it is suffering with extreme asthma that switches it on.

“If it is a cause and we are able to target the activation of these immune cells using drugs, we might be able to prevent the switching on of CD8+ and provide a novel approach to the treatment of severe asthma.”

The research was funded by Asthma UK, a charity dedicated to improving the health and well-being of asthma sufferers in Britain.

Leanne Metcalf, Director of Research at Asthma UK, says: “Asthma develops because of a complicated relationship between a person’s genetic make-up and the environment they are exposed to. Although asthma affects over 5.4 million people in the UK , we still don’t know precisely what causes it and why some people suffer so badly with their asthma symptoms. Therefore it’s really exciting for us to learn about specific differences in the way genes are activated in people with severe asthma and once we know why this occurs, we can attempt to develop new treatments that work in entirely different ways. This will be a real step forwards in freeing people from the restrictive and frightening effects of asthma symptoms which existing treatments cannot currently help them to overcome.”