Preventing Asthma

Dr Maria Sukkar

For more than 40 years, scientists around the world have made no major progress towards finding a cure or prevention for asthma. For 330 million people worldwide, all it takes is a little exposure to the right allergen to cause an inflammation of the airways, causing wheezing, tightness of the chest and difficulty breathing. For some, it is like trying to breathe through a pillow. In Australia alone, two million people live with the life-long disorder.

Dr Maria Sukkar, Senior Lecturer in the Discipline of Pharmacy at UTS’s Graduate School of Health, hopes to change all that. Her team of scientists is embarking on cellular research that could unravel the mystery of what causes this condition and lead to the creation of a preventative drug.

Researchers studying conditions such as Crohn’s Disease have isolated the triggers of the body’s immune response in the gut called “autophagy”. Remarkably, the autophagic response to airborne allergens that cause asthma has never been studied. 

“This indicates a serious gap in our knowledge,” Sukkar says. “We are thinking that the cell response in the gut would be similar to the reaction in the lungs. It’s really not an unreasonable hypothesis and now we are trying to test it.”

Allergens such as dust mites, animal dander, cockroaches and pollen are a major risk factor for developing asthma. “If we can understand the cellular response in humans to allergens, and if we can understand why asthma sufferers’ develop an abnormal response, then we can nip it in the bud,” Sukkar says.

This hypothesis is the culmination of Sukkar’s research career, after working on the issue at the University of Sydney and Imperial College in London before coming to UTS to lead this team.

“It has taken me more than a decade to play with novel ideas, to unpick the process and reach this point, but I now feel I am on the point of a major breakthrough,” she says.

Her team is taking a three step approach in their research; their major milestone in the first year is to grow cells affected by asthma – epithelial cells - in vitro, isolated in petri dishes and analyse the response of the allergens in them.

The next year they will experiment on mice, giving them asthma and then testing their hypothesis on the mice’s whole body. In the third year, they will experiment on tissue taken from humans with respiratory disease and then begin to look for preventative drugs.

Sukkar’s team is working in state-of-the-art lab facilities in UTS’s new Graduate School of Health, but their major challenge is securing operational funding of about $50,000 a year, she says.

“When you are at this early stage research it is very difficult to get government funding, especially from the National Health and Medical Research Council,” she says.

The process is comparable to start-up entrepreneurs searching for venture capital funding for a Blue Sky idea, but in Sukkar’s case her research could significantly improve the quality of life for hundreds of millions of people globally.

Almost half of the Australian population is “sensitised” to these allergens, she adds, but only ten per cent have an asthmatic response when their bronchioles dilate and their airways narrow, which causes shortness of breath and coughing.

Currently physicians can only placate these symptoms with anti-inflammatory drugs and bronchial-dilators (like Ventolin).