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Imaging inflammation in asthma by tracking blood cell flow

Researchers at King’s College London have found a non-invasive way to image asthma by looking at the speed at which a specific white blood cell moves through the lungs of a patient. This could assist in the diagnosis of asthma as well as help in evaluating early treatment response.

The research team, led by Dr Greg Mullen, Senior Lecturer, Department of Imaging Chemistry & Biology, has developed a test looking at how white blood cells move around the body. This could help doctors to measure treatment response to existing and new antiasthma drugs, as reported recently in the journal EBioMedicine

Currently there is no single specific test to diagnose asthma. The definitive diagnosis is performed in a hospital where the patient inhales histamine and, if asthmatic, the patient will have an asthma attack. This procedure is time consuming and uncomfortable for the patient.

The researchers found that when a particular white blood cell, eosinophil, was purified from asthmatic patients it differed from those of healthy volunteers in that eosinophils of asthmatic patients moved more slowly through their lungs compared to healthy volunteers. This result would have been difficult to observe had the investigators used a mix of white blood cells.

Asthma affects over 300 million people worldwide and its prevalence continues to rise. It is a complex chronic inflammatory lung disease and symptoms typically include breathlessness, cough and wheeze along with asthma attacks which are more frequent and persistent in severe disease.
This new technique could one day diagnose people with asthma. It could also be used to study other, often difficult to diagnose conditions such as Eosinophilic Enteritis or Crohn's Disease. Cell tracking started in nuclear medicine 30 years ago with radiolabelling of white blood cells for infection imaging. Today it is used in the clinic to image suspected hip and knee replacement infections. Using imaging to see how different cells move around the body can be a valuable tool and could be used in the clinical development of cell therapy such as stem and immune cell therapies.

Dr Mullen says: 'This study demonstrates that asthma affects not only the lungs but needs to be viewed as  a systemic phenomenon affecting blood cells (eosinophils) migrating through them. It is possible to image asthma non-invasively through studying a patient's eosinophils.'

A commentary in the journal EBioMedicine explains how this study contributes to the wider field.

This study is based on previous research published by the group in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology earlier this year. 

The next steps of this research are to carry out a larger clinical study and look at the efficacy of new anti-asthma drug treatments.

The study was funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) comprehensive Biomedical Research Centre award to Guy's & St Thomas' NHS Foundation 

Trust in partnership with King's College London and King’s College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust and Lee Lu Cheung Fund.

Further information