For the first time, researchers in the UK have discovered that a particular protein is playing a key role in the development of asthma, and knowing this, they've found a class of drugs that can effectively treat its most harrowing symptoms.

Working with mouse models and human airway tissue from asthmatic and non-asthmatic volunteers, the team found that an existing class of drugs, called calcilytics, can be surprisingly effective in reversing some of the worst symptoms of the condition, including the narrowing of the airways, which causes a shortness of breath; and airway twitchiness and inflammation. 

The research is pretty encouraging, because while some people respond well to available treatments, one in 12 people affected by asthma are yet to find a medication that works for them. Working with these drugs could mean a more comprehensive treatment option for asthmatics. The team also thinks it could work as a treatment for other illnesses that are associated with throat inflammation, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and chronic bronchitis.

Interestingly, calcilytics were first developed around 15 years ago as a treatment for osteoporosis, because they showed potential in strengthening deteriorating bones by triggering a release of hormone via a type of protein called a calcium sensing receptor (CaSR). While they proved disappointing and ultimately ineffective in treating osteoporosis, they were at least found to be safe for people and caused minimal side effects, which is why they're such a promising option for future asthma trials.

"Our findings are incredibly exciting," lead researcher Daniela Riccardi, from the Cardiff University School of Biosciences, said in a press release. "For the first time we have found a link between airways inflammation, which can be caused by environmental triggers - such as allergens, cigarette smoke and car fumes - and airways twitchiness in allergic asthma."

Publishing in the journal Science Translational Medicine, Riccardi and her team discovered that CaSR is activated by these environmental triggers, but the when calcilytics drugs are nebulised directly into the lungs, they deactivate CaSR and prevent every one of the main symptoms of asthma from occurring.

Samantha Walker, Director of Research and Policy at Asthma UK, discusses the findings in the press release:

"This hugely exciting discovery enables us, for the first time, to tackle the underlying causes of asthma symptom. If this research proves successful, we may be just a few years away from a new treatment for asthma, and we urgently need further investment to take it further through clinical trials

Asthma research is chronically underfunded; there have only been a handful of new treatments developed in the last 50 years so the importance of investment in research like this is absolutely essential."

The team is now looking at getting the funding they need to get calcilytics into clinical trials once they can prove that direct application to the lungs is safe. They predict that the treatment could be available in as little as five years time. "If we can prove that calcilytics are safe when administered directly to the lung in people, then in five years we could be in a position to treat patients and potentially stop asthma from happening in the first place," said Riccardi.