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The treatment of asthma could now be revolutionized because of a new discovery made by researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. What they discovered is that the lungs contain receptors similar to those on the tongue for the bitter sense of taste. And this can revolutionize the way the asthma is treated.
The study senior author, Stephen B. Liggett, M.D., professor of medicine and physiology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and director of its Cardiopulmonary Genomics Program said that at first they were skeptical about the results and that "it was so unexpected" for them to discover these receptors in the lungs.
In asthma the smooth muscles which are in the walls of the airflows constrict so much, that they restrain the airflow to the lungs. Dr. Liggett, a pulmonologist, says his team found the taste receptors by accident, during an earlier, unrelated study of human lung muscle receptors that regulate airway contraction and relaxation.
The difference between the receptors on the tongue and those in the lungs is that those on the tongue are grouped in buds and send their signals directly to the brain, while those in the lungs are sole and they don't send their impulses to the brain, but react to the bitter taste.
At first, the researchers thought that the presence in the lungs of such receptors is a result of adaptation, that will prevent us from inhaling poisonous toxins with bitter taste. But further studies showed that instead of constricting the airways, these receptors were participating in their dilatation.
"It turns out that the bitter compounds worked the opposite way from what we thought,"
says Dr. Liggett. "They all opened the airway more profoundly than any known drug that we have for treatment of asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)."
Dr. Liggett says this observation could have implications for new therapies. "New drugs to treat asthma, emphysema or chronic bronchitis are needed,"
he says. "This could replace or enhance what is now in use, and represents a completely new approach."
A mouse model of asthma showed that substances as Quinine and Chlorquinine, used in treating malaria, but with a bitter taste, can be very efficient in relaxing the airways. The mouse model received aerosolized form of medication which proved to be efficient. This leads the asthma treatment to a totally new direction.
Dr. Liggett cautions that eating bitter tasting foods or compounds would not help in the treatment of asthma. "Based on our research, we think that the best drugs would be chemical modifications of bitter compounds, which would be aerosolized and then inhaled into the lungs with an inhaler,"
"The work of this team exemplifies what it takes to make real improvements in treating certain diseases,"
says E. Albert Reece, M.D., Ph.D., M.B.A., vice president for medical affairs at the University of Maryland and dean of the University of Maryland School of Medicine. "These researchers were willing to take chances and ask questions about an unlikely concept. Why are taste receptors in the lungs? What do they do? Can we take advantage of them to devise a new therapy? In the end, their discoveries are in the best tradition of scientific research."
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