Fighting for a world without asthma

13 December 2017
​Almost everyone knows someone with asthma. An international research consortium for asthma prevention led by the Dutch scientist Hermelijn Smits will search for novel approaches to prevent, potentially eliminate, this lung disease in the world. They will focus on the exploitation of commensals: ‘beneficial’ micro-organisms that live in and around our body.

"Over the past fifty to seventy years, the number of children with an allergic condition, including asthma, has alarmingly increased. Currently about one in ten school-age children in Europe has this lung disease," explains Dr. Smits from the Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands. That is a problem, because asthma has a big impact on your life and increases the chance of other lung problems later in life. The international consortium 'A World Without Asthma (AWWA)' wants to do something about this. The consortium is the first one to be launched within the Lung Foundation Netherlands | Accelerate programme: an innovative and result-driven international funding program of the Lung Foundation Netherlands.

Prof. Bart Lambrecht (VIB-UGent): “This international consortium is very well placed to make major breakthroughs.”

Modern lifestyle
To find an explanation, the consortium goes back to what is probably a major cause of the disease: our modern lifestyle. "We know from research that children who grow up on a farm suffer much less from allergies and asthma than children who grow up in the city," says prof. Hamida Hammad (VIB-UGent). This probably has to do with the exposure to a larger group of commensals: beneficial micro-organisms that roam around in the environment and our close proximity. A higher diversity and abundancy of commensals in and around our body, will substantially improve the education of your immune system. It learns to become unresponsive to harmless substances from the environment.

Farm milk
One way to flourish the population of commensals in your body or to increase contact with them is through unprocessed, natural foods. That is exactly what the consortium is going to try. In the coming years, they will test at in 2700 toddlers whether drinking of minimally processed milk can prevent asthma. "We will compare children who drink minimally processed milk with children who drink regular milk. This minimally processed milk still contains many immune-complexes, fat and sugar chains that are good for the intestinal flora and the immune system”, explains Erika von Mutius from the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, Germany.

Other strategies
But the consortium thinks further than just minimally processed milk. It is expected that the number of children with asthma decreases 10 percent due to farm milk. “But we realize there are multiple ways in which commensals protect us from asthma” says prof. Lambrecht (VIB-UGent). That is why the VIB-UGent Center for Inflammation Research together with international partners, is looking for additional strategies. They think of inhibiting the immune system and strengthening the lungs by administering molecules from farm dust or parasitic worms. In addition, they are looking for ways to predict, on the basis of gene expression patterns, which children do not sufficiently benefit from the minimally processed milk and qualify for an additional approach.

The Lung Foundation Netherlands|Accelerate programme: On the initiative and under the guidance of the Lung Foundation Netherlands, the Accelerate programme combines strengths of leading academic top researchers, medical doctors, lung patients and societal partners. With the idea to make an accelerated medical breakthrough possible through intensive collaboration and knowledge sharing. From Lung Foundation Netherlands | Accelerate, AWWA will receive 2 million euros over the next two years. Furthermore, the Lung Foundation Netherlands is committed to bring in an additional 4 million for the following 3 years thereafter.

Bart Lambrecht en Hamida Hammad (VIB-UGent)