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U of C researchers discover new way to treat asthma attacks

An out-of-the-box approach discovered by researchers at the University of Calgary may be able to eliminate allergen-induced asthma attacks. Adam MacVicar / Global News

After five years of ongoing research, scientists at the University of Calgary have discovered a new way to help asthma patients breath more easily during an allergen-induced asthma attack.

“It’s promising; it gives us hope,” said Dr. Nicholas Jendzjowski,  post-doctoral fellow and first author on the study.

The recent study, which was performed on rats, targets the carotid bodies: collections of neurons on each side of the neck that signal the brain to breathe. Researchers believe that stimulating these carotid bodies makes it harder for asthma patients to breathe during an asthma attack.

The researchers found that by blocking the receptors in the carotid bodies, they could eliminate the symptoms of an asthma attack.

“Because we were associated with the hospital, we’re always looking for medical implications, and this was very apparent quite early on that we had something here,” said Dr. Richard Wilson, professor in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology at U of C. “I think what surprised all of us was how effective this approach really was to reducing an asthmatic attack in a rat model.”

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According to the team behind the discovery, the hope is to use this research to develop an emergency treatment for asthma attacks, which could come in the form of a pill or a device similar to an EpiPen. This emergency treatment could then be used on a patient in the back of an ambulance.

During an asthma attack, airways in the lungs constrict and the body produces more mucus. To open those air passages, asthma patients inhale medication to stop the attack, however this can be problematic when the airways are blocked.

“Instead of focusing on the lungs, where the allergens are inhaled, we now have a peripheral sensory organ, which affects the lungs,” Jendzjowski said. “Instead of trying to inhale medication to airways, which are constricted, the medicine doesn’t even get there. We now bypass that and get the medicine in a different way.”

Although the discovery is anticipated to be a big step forward for people suffering from allergen-induced asthma, researchers say there’s still a long way to go. The team is now seeking more funding to expand on their discovery.

“I’m hoping that within the next couple of years that we may know whether this may work in a human asthmatic,” Wilson said.

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With support from the Lung Association of Alberta and NWT and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the scientists behind this breakthrough are hoping their hard work is a breath of fresh air for those struggling to treat their symptoms.

“Thinking outside the box sometimes proves significant results,” Jendzjowski said.

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