12 July 2019

What is cell mapping and how does it provide new insights about asthma?

Understanding lung cells and their signals could help efforts to find new drug targets to treat asthma, according to a report.

In an effort to improve the lives of millions of people with asthma, researchers say they've completed the first mapping of lung and airway cells, which may lead to new therapies for the common lung condition.

The mapping reveals differences between airways in people with and without asthma, and in how lung cells communicate with one another, the study authors said.

A new cell state

Understanding the cells and their signals could help efforts to find new drug targets to treat asthma, according to the report.

The investigators also discovered a new cell state that produces mucus in asthma patients.

For the study, the team analysed more than 36 000 cells from the nasal area and from three areas of the lung from 17 people without asthma. This revealed which genes were active in each cell and identified specific cell types.

The researchers then analysed cells from six asthma patients. That analysis uncovered distinct differences in the cells and how they communicate with one another, compared to people without asthma.

"We have generated a detailed anatomical map of the respiratory airways, producing the first draft human lung cell atlas from both normal and asthmatic people," said study co-author Felipe Vieira Braga of Wellcome Sanger Institute, in Hinxton, England.

"This has given us a better definition of the cell types in asthmatic lungs, and allowed us to discover an entirely new cell state in asthmatic patients that produces mucus," Braga explained in an institute news release.

New asthma drugs

Study co-author Martijn Nawijn, of University Medical Center Groningen in the Netherlands, added that, normally, all kinds of cells communicate with each other to keep the airways functioning well.

"But in asthma patients, almost all of those interactions are lost," Nawijn said. "Instead of a network of interactions, in asthma the inflammatory cells seem to completely dominate the communication in the airways."

A better understanding of the types of cells in the lungs of asthma patients, and how those cells communicate, could lead to new drugs to prevent cells from responding to inflammatory signals.

The researchers also found that cells in different areas of the lung have very different activities. That could also aid efforts to develop new asthma drugs.

Asthma, which affected more than 350 million people worldwide in 2015, is caused by swelling of the tubes that carry air in and out of the lungs, making it difficult to get enough oxygen.

The study was published in the journal Nature Medicine.

Image credit: iStock


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Professor Keertan Dheda has received of several prestigious awards including the 2014 Oppenheimer Award, and has published over 160 peer-reviewed papers and holds 3 patents related to new TB diagnostic or infection control technologies. He serves on the editorial board of the journals PLoS One, the International Journal of Tuberculosis and Lung Disease, American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Medicine, Lancet Respiratory Diseases and Nature Scientific Reports, amongst others.Read his full biography at the University of Cape Town Lung Institute

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