Farms could prevent asthma - and our research is finding out why

One of our new PhD projects will investigate what it is about farms that could prevent asthma, and how this could help children at greater risk of asthma.

With the start of the new university year we also see the start of exciting new research projects to be undertaken by PhD students.

Asthma UK funds PhD projects so that we can fund cutting-edge research that moves us closer to stopping asthma attacks and curing asthma, at the same time as creating the next generation of asthma research superstars.

One of the projects that we funded earlier this year will be investigating farmyard environments. Researchers know that living on a farm reduces the risk of children developing asthma – our researchers will look a bit deeper at how this could help children with genes that put them more at risk of asthma developing.

Professor Sejal Saglani will be supervising and training the PhD student during this project. We spoke to her to understand more about the importance of this project and what this could do for people with asthma.

Why are farms such an exciting area for asthma research?

There is very good, robust data from studies that have been carried out in Bavaria in Germany looking at cattle farms where the families live close to the cowsheds. The rate of asthma and allergies in those children is far lower than in the rest of the population and that's been reproduced not just in Germany but also in similar farms in France, Switzerland and other parts of the world. We know there's something about being in close, constant contact with the cattle which helps protect infants from developing asthma and allergies. It’s the most reproducible finding we’ve had in terms of what stops you from getting asthma.

Please explain in a bit more detail what you will be doing in this project?

Previous studies have shown strong associations between two particular genes called ORMDL3 and GSDMB and children who wheeze in early life and go on to develop asthma. Children who carry these genes and grow up on cattle farms are far less likely to get asthma than other children with the same genes who haven't grown up on farms. What my team is trying to do is find an immunisation that prevents a gene from going rogue or mutating. To do that we are using farmyard dust and we are going to try and identify the bacteria in the dust that is giving the children their immunity.

So you’re looking for the ingredient that is protecting these children from developing asthma?

Exactly. Professor Erika Von Mutius, who leads the studies in Germany, has sent us samples of the dust that she believes includes the protective ingredients with all the bacteria that we need in it. This has actually been collected from the bedroom floors in the farmhouses. She's also separately sent us samples of what she considers to be the "likely culprits" from her research so far. It's going to be a process of elimination. First of all we will test the dust in the lab to establish that it is protective. Then we will need to find out exactly which are the good bacteria well, probably which combination of bacteria produce the result we want. We will also need to work out how much to give. If you get too many of one bacteria that's not necessarily good for you either.

Do you know when children start to develop this protection?

That's not known yet, but we do know that these mums are working on cattle farms throughout their pregnancy as well as after they've had the baby. I don’t think it's just the pregnancy – I think it's the continued exposure that’s important. Because we can't all live and work in that environment what we want to know is what it is specifically that protects these children.

We think that something these babies and children are breathing is protecting them – something going into their lungs. We believe that it is in the farmyard environment, that the bacteria are carried into the house where it ends up in the dust. It's then carried into a child's bedroom, onto their bed and so on. We know that our lungs aren't sterile, that there is always some bacteria in them and we know that there are good and bad bacteria, but until now we haven’t known which were which.

What would your 'dream result' from this research be?

My dream would be to identify the specific bacteria that is protecting children from developing asthma and to be able to replicate that in the lab. Once we know this we could turn it into a compound that could be inhaled. It could be given to children who carry that genetic disposition to asthma which would stop them developing asthma.

This is just one of our cutting-edge asthma research projects – read more about the other exciting projects we’re supporting.

This is an edited extract of an article that appeared in our Autumn 2016 issue of Asthma Magazine.