Drug to help ease breathing problems

Scientists are working on a new drug that could help people with lung conditions. It blocks excess mucus production in the respiratory tract.
Alice Jaffe

A NEW drug could help millions with lung conditions such as asthma and emphysema, which cause symptoms ranging from coughing to severe breathing difficulties.

The drug blocks excess mucus production in the respiratory tract. Mucus plays a crucial role in keeping our lungs and airways healthy by maintaining moisture and trapping particles such as dust and microbes which might cause irritation or infection.

Tiny hair-like cells called cilia, which move in a wave-like motion, then transport the mucus containing unwanted microbes and other substances out of the body in phlegm.

But people with conditions such as asthma, viral infections, cystic fibrosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) - an umbrella term for chronic lung conditions, including emphysema - can produce too much mucus.

In some cases this can lead to a life-threatening build-up of it that can entirely obstruct the airway.

Current treatments include steroid inhalers to dampen down the inflammation which promotes mucus build-up in those with asthma, and mucus-thinning medication for those with COPD and cystic fibrosis.

But now scientists have discovered an alternative.

The experimental drug, called PEN-SP9, blocks the effect of a protein involved in the over-production of mucus.

The drug was developed by scientists from the University of Texas and Stanford University, both in the United States, to tackle the protein called synaptotagmin.

This binds to calcium molecules that are released by inflamed cells in the lungs, triggering a reaction between the two that ramps up mucus production.

The new drug stops synaptotagmin from binding to the calcium molecules. "This is the first compound that specifically alleviates the pathological hypersecretion of mucus," the researchers said.

The journal Nature reported earlier this year that, when the scientists tested the drug on mice, it reduced mucus production to normal, healthy levels without eliminating it completely. Human trials could begin in two to three years.

Commenting on the research, Professor James Chalmers, a consultant respiratory physician at Ninewells Hospital in Dundee and the chairman of the British Thoracic Society's science and research committee, said: "At the moment, we have lots of drugs for respiratory disease but we don't really have good drugs that reduce mucus production.

"This is an exciting development but it is in very early stages."

© Daily Mail