Asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) are the two major chronic respiratory diseases in Australia, with the incidence of asthma among the highest in the world, and COPD a major cause of death.
These disorders are a significant health and economic burden to the community. Researchers in the HMRI VIVA program are focused on understanding the cellular and molecular processes that are associated with the development and progression of respiratory diseases, such as asthma and COPD.
Chronic diseases of the airways including asthma are extremely common in Australia. In fact, the prevalence of asthma in Australia is among the highest in the world (Source – Global Asthma Report)
Ruth has lived with asthma for 50 years - a HMRI trial of a new antibiotic helped her control her symptoms for the first time in many years.
Asthma is one of the most widespread chronic health problems in Australia with approximately 10% of all Australians suffering from some degree of Asthma. In fact, more than 1 Australian dies every day as a result of Asthma (Source – Australian Institute of Health and Welfare).
COPD is a leading cause of disease burden in Australia and the 5th leading cause of death (Source – Australian Institute of Health and Welfare). People who smoke are six times more likely to have COPD as non-smokers and their symptoms are likely to be more severe (Source – Health Direct Australia) - this highlights the significant burden of smoking and COPD in Australia.
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a term used to describe a number of lung conditions, the most common of which are emphysema and chronic bronchitis. These chronic long-term respiratory diseases are marked by shortness of breath and affect the process of breathing and oxygen delivery to the organs of the body.
Researchers in the HMRI VIVA research program are working to unravel the mechanisms by which diseases such as asthma and COPD develop and cause significant disease burden in our communities.
Asthma and other respiratory diseases are often linked to the immune system and inflammation. This is because the immune system is thought to be a regulator of asthma and airways inflammation by producing too many immune factors in response to a stimuli that should not cause such a reaction.
Researchers within the VIVA research program have identified important immune factors such as white blood cell types called T-cells, eosinophils, neutrophils and macrophages which are all critical in the development and regulation of asthma and diseases of the airways. These factors are important because the more we can understand about how asthma works, the more targeted treatment options can be developed.
Developing targeted therapies for the treatment of asthma is a major focus of Hunter researchers. Although around 50% of asthmatics can gain some relief from the use of inhaled corticosteroids for the treatment of their asthma, another 50% of patients do not see any therapeutic benefit of this treatment due to the specific molecules that are in involved in the development of the disease. In the same way that cancer treatment can be targeted to the specific genetic or molecular factors behind the development of the tumour, asthma has the potential to be treated in the same way.
By ensuring that the right therapy is given to the right person and the right time, targeted therapy for asthma aims to give existing treatments to patients who will benefit from it the most and develop new treatments for patients whose disease cannot be adequately controlled with existing treatments.
Hunter researchers have also developed a new blood test to distinguish between a diagnosis of chronic asthma and COPD which are clinically similar but require very different treatment regimens.
Hunter researchers in the HMRI VIVA research group are also focussed on the genetics of asthmatic patients and the molecules that regulate their gene expression, known as epigenetics. New factors have been identified in the signalling pathways that induce inflammation, as well as chlamydia lung infections in newborns, a major contributor to the development of asthma later in life.
In fact, the study of chlamydia itself is a major focus of researchers in the VIVA research group due to its high prevalence in the community (up to 50% of young adults have the infection), and its action on reducing lung function and therefore predisposition to pneumonia and asthma. Understanding how chlamydia infections interact with the immune system and other diseases is an important aspect to preventing and treating asthma and is a key research focus for Hunter researchers.