THE Telethon Institute for Child Health Research in Perth is currently participating in the world-first development of an asthma vaccine, after finding mounting evidence the disease’s establishment appears to be consequential of viral respiratory infections.
Deputy Director and Head of the Cell Biology Division Professor Patrick Holt, says the latest review of international findings (published in the last two years) over the role of virus infections in asthma development in children, consolidates a story that has been slowly emerging over the past decade.
“A series of studies from different research groups in Europe, USA and Australia have independently led to the same conclusion: that respiratory virus infections, acting in conjunction with respiratory allergy, are very strong risk factors for getting asthma initially (especially when the infections and allergies occur during infancy and preschool years), and for precipitating severe attacks in kids who have developed ‘established asthma’,” he says.
“We believe that if we can forestall the early onset of asthma and allow the lung and airways to grow and mature optimally without the continuous stress of inflammation—resulting from the combination of infection/allergies—they will progressively acquire a natural resistance to asthma development that is likely to protect them throughout life.”
As the vaccine and other potential therapy trials are underway in Australia and internationally, Prof Holt says the most difficult part is seeking the required funding.
“One of our major challenges has been to convince the pharmaceutical industry to get seriously interested in “prevention” of asthma, especially in children, as opposed to the conventional approach of treating symptoms in established disease,” he says.
“Part of this challenge has been to first convince clinical and scientific researchers internationally that this opportunity really exists, by marshalling the evidence of the type that is reviewed in the article.
“After 20 years of persistent effort we are starting to get serious traction both in academia and with the pharmaceutical industry, but I emphasise the word starting. Nothing happens quickly in medical research.”
Prof Holt says the basis of acquired conclusions resembles a murder trial conviction, based on the ‘balance of probability’, which is in turn based on layer upon layer of plausible, but usually indirect, evidence about causality.
The Institute intends to finally pinpoint the causes of asthma and is seeking children aged 3–7 years old to help identify the strong asthma risk factors and prevent the disease.