Press release: Worms could cure asthma, new study shows

Date: 18 November 2017

Worms could prevent asthma and offer the hope of a cure to the 5.4 million people in the UK with the condition, according to a breakthrough study funded by Asthma UK and published in Immunity Journal this week.

The research, led by the University of Edinburgh, found that parasitic worms that live in the intestines, known as roundworms, release a protein molecule called HpARI, which prevents its host from having an allergic reaction.

People who live in countries where parasitic worms are common are less likely to have asthma. In South East Asia, less than 1 in 20 people have asthma as diagnosed by a doctor. Whereas in the UK, 1 in 11 people have the condition.

Asthma attacks, which kill three people in the UK each day, are often triggered by allergies such as pollen, pets and house dust mites. Finding a way to dampen this allergic reaction could stop peoples’ airways from becoming inflamed and prevent a potentially life-threatening asthma attack.

Researchers hope that in the next 5-10 years scientists could use this protein as the basis for asthma treatments. They could reduce and possibly even prevent allergic responses, such as those that cause asthma.

The study was conducted on mice but the lead researcher, through a new collaboration with MedImmune, Cambridge, has demonstrated that the findings could be applied to human lungs.

This research was led by Dr Henry McSorley, at the Medical Research Council Centre for Inflammation Research at the University of Edinburgh, along with Prof Rick Maizels at the University of Glasgow.

Dr McSorley, said:

“We have known for some years that infections with parasitic worms appear to protect people against asthma. 

“We have always believed that identifying exactly how parasites prevent asthma could inspire new treatments. By identifying this new protein, we have found a new way of suppressing the allergic responses which cause asthma. In the future, we hope to develop this further.”

Dr Samantha Walker, Director of Research & Policy at Asthma UK, said:

“This is exciting early research that could pave the way for the development of new treatments for asthma.

“Asthma is a debilitating condition that affects 1 in 11 people in the UK. It leaves people gasping for breath and in some cases, can be fatal, so this research is an important step towards finding a cure for this type of asthma.

“It is becoming clear that there are many different types of asthma and that not all of them respond to current treatment, which is why research like this is so important.

"Asthma UK funds research projects into asthma, and breakthroughs like this can make a real difference to the lives of people with asthma.”

Val Hudson, a consultant from Durham, was diagnosed with asthma as an adult. She said:

“It’s incredible to think worms could cure asthma, and research like this will offer hope to the many people who like me who have asthma.

“My asthma attacks are triggered by cold weather, common colds and dust and they can leave me gasping for breath for hours. Having an asthma attack is absolutely terrifying, it feels like someone is holding a pillow over my face.

“I have daily medication to control my asthma but there are still things I can’t do because of it, like swimming and even walking makes me very breathless sometimes. I know people who have been in and out of hospital because of their asthma attacks so I want people to know how serious asthma can be. Three people die from it each day. That’s why research like this is so vital.”

Asthma UK is the only asthma charity in the UK and provides advice and guidance to people with the condition through its helpline, staffed by nurses, website, leaflets and booklets. The charity also funds over 30 research projects into finding a way to help prevent, manage or cure asthma.

Notes to Editors:

For more information, please contact the Asthma UK media team on mediaoffice@asthma.org.uk, 020 7786 4949 (during office hours) or 07951 721393 (outside of office hours).

The Asthma UK Data Portal is a new online tool for journalists to explore trends in asthma outcomes across the UK. Information on asthma facts and statistics can also be found on our website.

About Asthma UK

  • In the UK, 5.4 million people are currently receiving treatment for asthma: 1.1 million children (1 in 11) and 4.3 million adults (1 in 12).
  • Every day, the lives of three families are devastated by the death of a loved one to an asthma attack, and tragically two thirds of these deaths are preventable.
  • Asthma UK’s mission is to stop asthma attacks and cure asthma. We do this by funding world leading research, campaigning for improved care and supporting people to reduce their risk of a potentially life threatening asthma attack.
  • The Asthma UK Helpline is open weekdays from 9am to 5pm on 0300 222 5800.
  • For more information about asthma please visit www.asthma.org.uk