Could ‘Good’ Bacteria be Key to Preventing Asthma?
Contrary to popular belief, asthma isn’t just a childhood condition. It affects around five-and-a-half million people in the UK alone – one in 12 adults and one in 11 children. It’s more common in women than in men and can develop at any age.
It isn’t fully known what causes the condition, but it leads to inflammation and sensitivity of the bronchi in the lungs, which carry air in and out.
When an asthma patient comes in contact with something that irritates the bronchi, such as pollen, animal fur, or dust, the airways narrow, the muscles tighten, and there is an increase in phlegm. All of this combines to make the sufferer struggle to take a breath.
As with most conditions, the severity varies from person to person. It can be controlled in most sufferers most of the time, but some people have more persistent problems and more frequent “asthma attacks”.
Attacks can occur when asthma symptoms either gradually or suddenly worsen, perhaps as a result of being triggered by those irritants we told you about. Stressful situations have also been known to bring about an asthma attack.
Asthma cases have been rising over recent years and it’s thought to be something to do with children not being exposed to enough microbes when they are very young. The immune system struggles to tell the different between the friends and foes inside the body. However, this is just one hypothesis among many.
There currently isn’t a cure for asthma, but there are treatments aimed at relieving symptoms and preventing future attacks, and medicines usually administered via an inhaler.
As we said, there isn’t a known cure, but scientists in Canada might be on to something. Reporting in Science Translational Medicine, they suggest that being exposed to “good bacteria” early on in life could actually prevent asthma from developing altogether.
The team, led by Dr Stuart Turvey and Dr Brett Finlay at the University of British Columbia and Vancouver’s Children’s Hospital, were analysing the millions of bacteria that naturally live inside the human body.
There were 319 children in the study, some of whom were found to be lacking in four types of bacteria collectively known as “Flvr”: Faecalibacterium, Lachnospiro, Veillonella, and Rothia.
At the age of three months, these children were found to be at a higher risk of developing asthma when they were a couple of years older, based on wheeze and skin allergy tests.
These babies also digested their food differently, shown by the lower levels of acetate, a type of fatty acid, in their stool.
These differences were only noted at three months old, and couldn’t be found in those who were a year old. This suggests that the first few months of children’s lives are crucial. Exposing them to the right bacteria during the right (tiny) timeframe could be the best way of preventing not only asthma but allergies as well.
“This discovery gives us new potential ways to prevent this disease that is life-threatening for many children,” said Dr Turvey. “It shows there is a short, maybe 100-day window, for giving babies therapeutic interventions to protect against asthma.”
He went on to explain that the long-term goal would be to develop an Flvr supplement for children in the first few months of their life to protect them against asthma. “Our ultimate vision of the future,” he added, “would be to prevent this disease.”
Dr Finlay, the other corresponding author of the paper, said that he was surprised that the immune system could be being influenced by faecal microbes, but that it made sense.
“What data is really starting to show these days is that the immune system gets itself set up in the gut and influences how it works everywhere else in the body,” he explained.
Commenting on the study, Dr Samantha Walker from Asthma UK said that while the study suggests gut bacteria could factor in why some people develop asthma, much more research is needed.
Ultimately, it is too early to say for sure whether or not “good” bacteria could be the key to preventing the condition, but the results certainly look promising. More than anything, the study could at least further our understanding of how asthma develops and how it might best be treated, or even eventually prevented.