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Searching for the molecular underpinnings of asthma exacerbations

little boy using asthma inhaler

It’s long been known that colds, flu and other respiratory illnesses are major triggers for asthma exacerbations, says asthma expert Stephen J. Teach, M.D., MPH. Consequently, a significant body of research has focused on trying to figure out what’s happening on the cellular or molecular level as these illnesses progress to exacerbations.

People with asthma can be indistinguishable from people who don’t have this chronic airway disease – until they have an asthma attack, also known as an exacerbation. During these events, their airways become inflamed and swollen and produce an abundance of mucus, causing dangerous narrowing of the bronchial tubes that leads to coughing, wheezing and trouble breathing. These events are a major cause of morbidity and mortality, leading to the deaths of 10 U.S. residents every day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It’s long been known that colds, flu and other respiratory illnesses are major triggers for asthma exacerbations, says Children’s National in Washington, D.C., asthma expert Stephen J. Teach, M.D., MPH. Consequently, a significant body of research has focused on trying to figure out what’s happening on the cellular or molecular level as these illnesses progress to exacerbations. Targeted searches have identified several different molecular pathways that appear to be key players in this phenomenon. However, Dr. Teach says researchers have been missing a complete and unbiased snapshot of all the important pathways in illness-triggered exacerbations and how they interrelate.

To develop this big picture view, Dr. Teach and  Inner-City Asthma Consortium colleagues recruited 208 children ages 6-17 years old with severe asthma – marked by the need for daily doses of inhaled corticosteroids, two hospitalizations or systemic corticosteroid treatments over the past year, and a high concentration of asthma-associated immune cells – from nine pediatric medical centers across the country, including Children’s National. (Inhaled corticosteroids are a class of medicine that calms inflamed airways.) The researchers collected samples of nasal secretions and blood from these patients at baseline, when all of them were healthy.

Then, they waited for these children to show symptoms of respiratory illnesses. Within six days of cold symptoms, the researchers took two more samples of nasal secretions and blood. They also administered breathing tests to determine whether these respiratory illnesses led to asthma exacerbations and recorded whether these patients were treated with systemic corticosteroids to stem the associated respiratory inflammation.

The researchers examined nasal fluid samples for evidence of viral infection during illness and used analytical methods to identify the causative virus. They analyzed all the samples they collected for changes in concentrations of various immune cells. They also looked globally in these samples for changes in gene expression compared with baseline and between the two collection periods during respiratory illness.

Together, this information told the molecular story about what took place after these children got sick and after some of them developed exacerbations. Of the 208 patients recruited, 106 got respiratory illnesses during the six-month study period, leading to a total of 154 illness events. Of those, 47 caused exacerbations, and 107 didn’t.

About half the exacerbations appeared to have been triggered by a rhinovirus, a cause of common colds, the research team reports in a study published online April 8, 2019, in Nature Immunology. The other children’s cold-like symptoms could have been triggered by pollution, allergens or other irritants.

In most exacerbations, virally triggered or not, the researchers saw early activation of a network of genes that appeared to be associated with SMAD3, a signaling molecule already known to be involved in airway inflammation. At the same time, genes that control a set of immune cells known as lymphocytes were turned down. However, as the exacerbation progressed and worsened, the researchers saw gene networks turned on that related to airway narrowing, mucus hypersecretion and activation of other immune cells.

Exacerbations triggered by viruses were associated with multiple inflammatory pathways, in contrast to those in which viruses weren’t found, which were associated with molecular pathways that affected cells in the airway lining.

The researchers validated these findings in 19 patients who each got respiratory illnesses at least twice during the study period but only developed an exacerbation during one of these episodes, finding the same upregulated and downregulated molecular pathways in these patients as in the study population as a whole. They also identified a set of molecular risk factors in patients at baseline – signatures of gene activation that appeared to put patients at risk for exacerbations when they got sick. When patients were treated with systemic corticosteroids during exacerbations, these medicines appeared to restore only some of the affected molecular pathways to normal, healthy levels. Other molecular pathways remained markedly changed.

Each finding could represent a new target for drugs that could prevent or more effectively treat exacerbations, keeping more patients with asthma healthy and out of the hospital.

“Our consortium study found increased gene expression of enzymes that produce molecules that contribute to narrowed airways and dilated blood vessels,” Dr. Teach adds. “This is especially intriguing because drugs that target kallikreins or bradykinin may help treat asthma attacks that aren’t caused by viruses.”

In addition to Dr. Teach, study co-authors include Lead Author Matthew C. Altman, University of Washington; Michelle A. Gill, Baomei Shao and Rebecca S. Gruchalla, all of University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center; Elizabeth Whalen and Scott Presnell of Benaroya Research Institute; Denise C. Babineau and Brett Jepson of Rho, Inc.; Andrew H. Liu, Children’s Hospital Colorado; George T. O’Connor, Boston University School of Medicine; Jacqueline A. Pongracic, Ann Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago; Carolyn M. Kercsmar and Gurjit K. Khurana Hershey, , Cincinnati Children’s Hospital; Edward M. Zoratti and Christine C. Johnson, Henry Ford Health System; Meyer Kattan, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons; Leonard B. Bacharier and Avraham Beigelman, Washington University, St. Louis; Steve M. Sigelman, Peter J. Gergen, Lisa M. Wheatley and Alkis Togias, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; and James E. Gern, William W. Busse and Senior author Daniel J. Jackson, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

Funding for research described in this post was provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases under award numbers 1UM1AI114271 and UM2AI117870; CTSA under award numbers UL1TR000150, UL1TR001422 and 5UL1TR001425; the National Institutes of Health under award number UL1TR000451;  CTSI under award number 1UL1TR001430; CCTSI under award numbers UL1TR001082 and 5UM1AI114271; and NCATS under award numbers UL1 TR001876 and UL1TR002345.

dystrophin protein

Experimental drug shows promise for slowing cardiac disease and inflammation

dystrophin protein

Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) is caused by mutations in the DMD gene, which provides instructions for making dystrophin, a protein found mostly in skeletal, respiratory and heart muscles.

Vamorolone, an experimental medicine under development, appears to combine the beneficial effects of prednisone and eplerenone – standard treatments for Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) – in the heart and muscles, while also showing improved safety in experimental models. The drug does so by simultaneously targeting two nuclear receptors important in regulating inflammation and cardiomyopathy, indicates a small study published online Feb. 11, 2019, in Life Science Alliance.

DMD is a progressive X-linked disease that occurs mostly in males. It is characterized by muscle weakness that worsens over time, and most kids with DMD will use wheelchairs by the time they’re teenagers. DMD is caused by mutations in the DMD gene, which provides instructions for making dystrophin, a protein found mostly in skeletal, respiratory and heart muscles.

Cardiomyopathy, an umbrella term for diseases that weaken the heart, is a leading cause of death for young adults with DMD, causing up to 50 percent of deaths in patients who lack dystrophin. A collaborative research team co-led by Christopher R. Heier, Ph.D., and Christopher F. Spurney, M.D., of Children’s National Health System, is investigating cardiomyopathy in DMD. They find genetic dystrophin loss provides “a second hit” for a specific pathway that worsens cardiomyopathy in experimental models of DMD.

“Some drugs can interact with both the mineralocorticoid receptor (MR) and glucocorticoid receptor (GR) since these two drug targets evolved from a common ancestor. However, we find these two drug targets can play distinctly different roles in heart and skeletal muscle. The GR regulates muscle inflammation, while the MR plays a key role in heart health,” says Heier, an assistant professor at Children’s National and lead study author. “In our study, the experimental drug vamorolone safely targets both the GR to treat chronic inflammation and the MR to treat the heart.”

After gauging the efficacy of various treatments in test tubes, the study team looked at whether any could mitigate negative impacts of the MR on heart health. Wild type and mdx experimental models were implanted with pumps that activated the MR. These models also received a daily oral MR antagonist (or inhibitor) drug, and either eplerenone, spironolactone or vamorolone. Of note:

  • MR activation increased kidney size and caused elevated blood pressure (hypertension).
  • Treatment with vamorolone maintained normal kidney size and prevented hypertension.
  • MR activation increased mdx heart mass and fibrosis. Vamorolone mitigated these changes.
  • MR activation decreased mdx heart function, while vamorolone prevented declines in function.
  • Daily prednisone caused negative MR- and GR-mediated side effects, such as hyperinsulinemia, whereas vamorolone safely improved heart function without these side effects.

“These findings have the potential to help current and future patients,” Heier says. “Clinicians already prescribe several of these drugs. Our new data support the use of MR antagonists such as eplerenone in protecting DMD hearts, particularly if patients take prednisone. The experimental drug vamorolone is currently in Phase IIb clinical trials and is particularly exciting for its unique potential to simultaneously treat chronic inflammation and heart pathology with improved safety.”

In addition to Heier and senior author Spurney, study co-authors include Qing Yu, Alyson A. Fiorillo, Christopher B. Tully, Asya Tucker and Davi A. Mazala, all of Children’s National; Kitipong Uaesoontrachoon and Sadish Srinivassane, AGADA Biosciences Inc.; and Jesse M. Damsker, Eric P. Hoffman and Kanneboyina Nagaraju, ReveraGen BioPharma.

Financial support for research described in this report was provided by Action Duchenne; the Clark Charitable Foundation; the Department of Defense under award W81XWH-17-1-047; the Foundation to Eradicate Duchenne; the Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center under award U54HD090257 (through the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development); and the NIH under awards K99HL130035, R00HL130035, L40AR068727 and T32AR056993.

Financial disclosure:  Co-authors employed by ReveraGen BioPharma were involved in creating this news release.