SCIENTISTS in Glasgow and Edinburgh revealed major medical developments that could help in the treatment of asthma, cancer and other diseases – but if you a reading this over breakfast you may wish to avert your eyes, as one of the new areas of study involves worms.

Researchers from both Glasgow and Edinburgh are involved in a massive Dutch-led international collaboration that is tackling asthma, and announced the news yesterday.

Over the past 50 to 70 years, the number of children with an allergic condition, including asthma, has increased alarmingly and currently about one in 10 school-age children in Europe has the disease,

Dr Hermelijn Smits from the Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands said: “That is a problem, because asthma has a big impact on your life and increases the chance of other lung problems later in life.”

In Scotland, consortium researchers from the Universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh will study the potential benefits of molecules derived from parasitic worms.

Dr Rick Maizels, from the University of Glasgow Wellcome Centre for Molecular Parasitology, said: “Parasites have evolved over millions of years with sophisticated means of dampening immune reactions, so they may form an ideal source of new and natural products that can prevent allergy and asthma.”

Dr Henry McSorley, from the Medical Research Council Centre for Inflammation Research at the University of Edinburgh, said: “With new genomic information available, along with new techniques for the production of parasite molecules in the lab, we can finally test individual parasite products, with potential for direct development into novel medicines to combat asthma.”

The consortium is called A World Without Asthma (AWWA) and is the first to be launched within the Lung Foundation Netherlands: Accelerate funding programme.

Its aim is to search for novel approaches to help eliminate this lung disease from the world.

Research will focus on the exploitation of commensals – “beneficial”

micro-organisms that live in and around our body. In pursuit of its goal, the consortium is examining our modern lifestyles, a potential

major cause of asthma.

Dr Smits explained: “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.

“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 our immune system. It learns to

become unresponsive to harmless substances from the environment.”

Meanwhile in Edinburgh it was revealed that fresh insights into key hormones found in commonly prescribed medicines are providing further understanding of the side effects they can have.

The study in immune cells may help to explain why some people develop resistance to these drugs, which have powerful anti-inflammatory


Its findings are significant because glucocorticoid hormones – more commonly known as steroids – are also found naturally in the body and regulate its response to stress.

The research also improves understanding of the benefits of the drugs, which are used to treat a wide range of immune-linked conditions including asthma, eczema and cancers.

Glucocorticoids are safe to use and widely prescribed but some people develop side effects that limit their


Professor Wendy Bickmore, director of the MRC Human Genetics Unit at Edinburgh University, said: “These exciting results are a step change in how we understand the effect of glucocorticoids, which are safe drugs but have side effects in some people.

“Our next steps are to analyse whether these same changes can be detected in cells from patients who are taking glucocorticoids.”