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New advance in asthma research

Posted on 26/04/2011
asthma inhaler

A major breakthrough in creating effective new treatments for allergic asthma has been discovered by Asthma UK funded scientists at King’s College London.

The discovery is the culmination of over fifteen years of Asthma UK-funded research, and the findings are published in the latest edition of the journal Nature Structural & Molecular Biology.

The work, conducted by a team of scientists led by Professor Brian Sutton at the MRC Asthma UK Centre in Allergic Mechanisms of Asthma at King’s, revealed the precise shape of an important molecule called IgE as it binds to receptor proteins on the surface of mast cells in the lungs.

Scientists built up a picture of IgE’s shape down to the location of each individual atom by firing X-rays at purified protein crystals and measuring how the rays were deflected. Using this technique they were also able to reveal how IgE moves and twists as it attaches to the receptor.

With further funding from Asthma UK, the team is now testing a library of small chemical compounds, looking for ones that have the potential to block the interaction between IgE and its receptor and prevent the development of asthma.

There are hundreds of thousands of mast cells crawling through the lining of our lungs, each of which holds thousands of histamine-containing granules. In a person with allergic asthma, IgE molecules sit on the surface of these cells. Then, when the individual comes into contact with an allergen such as grass pollen, it sticks to the IgE, provoking the mast cells to release their granules. Histamine causes breathlessness, wheezing and other asthma symptoms by narrowing the airways and triggering inflammation.
Although allergens from grass pollen, pets, house-dust mites and other sources all have different shapes, all of them trigger asthma and allergy symptoms by binding to IgE on mast cells. Hence, a drug that can prevent IgE from interacting with mast cells would help anyone with allergic asthma, no matter what triggers their allergy.

The breakthrough is an essential step towards chemically-based drugs, such as those now being developed by Professor Sutton, which can be given in tablet form.

Professor Brian Sutton from King’s said: ‘We are immensely proud of our achievement. Thousands of hours of work by my team, plus that of our collaborators, has brought us to an incredibly exciting point.

‘Armed with the precise structure of IgE bound to its receptor we stand a great chance of being able to create hugely effective new treatments for allergic asthma.’

Dr Elaine Vickers, Research Relations Manager at Asthma UK, says: ‘In the UK, 5.4 million people have asthma and almost 80% of them say they have allergies which affect their asthma control.

‘The impact of potential new treatments for allergic asthma resulting from this work could have an enormous impact on the quality of life of people across both the UK and the world.’

Notes to editors
King's College London

King's College London is one of the top 25 universities in the world (2010 QS international world rankings), The Sunday Times 'University of the Year 2010/11' and the fourth oldest in England. A research-led university based in the heart of London, King's has nearly 23,500 students (of whom more than 9,000 are graduate students) from nearly 140 countries, and some 6,000 employees. King's is in the second phase of a £1 billion redevelopment programme which is transforming its estate.

King's has an outstanding reputation for providing world-class teaching and cutting-edge research. In the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise for British universities, 23 departments were ranked in the top quartile of British universities; over half of our academic staff work in departments that are in the top 10 per cent in the UK in their field and can thus be classed as world leading. The College is in the top seven UK universities for research earnings and has an overall annual income of nearly £450 million.

King's has a particularly distinguished reputation in the humanities, law, the sciences (including a wide range of health areas such as psychiatry, medicine, nursing and dentistry) and social sciences including international affairs. It has played a major role in many of the advances that have shaped modern life, such as the discovery of the structure of DNA and research that led to the development of radio, television, mobile phones and radar. It is the largest centre for the education of healthcare professionals in Europe; no university has more Medical Research Council Centres.

King's College London and Guy's and St Thomas', King's College Hospital and South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trusts are part of King's Health Partners. King's Health Partners Academic Health Sciences Centre (AHSC) is a pioneering global collaboration between one of the world's leading research-led universities and three of London's most successful NHS Foundation Trusts, including leading teaching hospitals and comprehensive mental health services. For more information, visit:

For further information please contact Emma Reynolds, Press Officer at King’s College London, on 0207 848 4334 or email

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