Asthma affects millions of people worldwide. The pathophysiology is complex but involves exaggerated smooth muscle contraction in the airways along with inflammation that in a chronic state causes airway remodeling (narrowing). The majority of current therapies for asthma address these two issues. Bronchodilators relax the smooth muscles and anti-inflammatories treat the inflammation. Despite the panoply of these medications there are still many asthmatics who either don’t respond as well as desired or have untoward side effects from the medications.
Recent research at our local USF has uncovered a new potentially unique mechanism via bitter taste receptors (TAS2R). Bitter taste receptors are found in many animals, including humans, and are thought to have evolved as a survival mechanism to both sense and avoid potentially harmful food sources. As it turns out, stimulating these receptors causes airway smooth muscles to relax by a mechanism completely different from currently available bronchodilators.
It also seems that stimulating TAS2R receptors in the nose and lungs can promote an innate immune response against inhaled irritants and microbes, and can also improve clinical function. Remember that cilia are the microscopic hairs whose motion helps remove allergens, irritants and microbes from our respiratory system. So, having the cilia beat more quickly is a good thing.
Of course, this research is very preliminary but the exciting aspect is it may prove to be an extremely safe new approach to treating asthma. Perhaps Mary Poppins was wrong about “the spoonful of sugar”.