The University of Maryland study, published in Nature Medicine, was led by Dr. Stephen Liggett. The researchers performed experiments on mice, barraging their lung receptors with bitter-tasting compounds. The researchers assumed that exposure to bitter substances would cause a tightening of the airways, but, in fact, the opposite proved to be true. The airways responded by opening up, which could ease breathing and potentially help in the treatment of other lung diseases.
Dr. Deepak A. Deshpande, one of the study authors and assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said that his team was surprised that there were even taste receptors in the lungs. "It was a surprising discovery," he told AOL Health. "And even though they were there, we were not sure they would translate into any function. We began screening compounds and saw a response."
Taste receptors in the smooth muscle of the lungs differ from taste buds in the mouth because they do not send signals to the brain. Still, when they are exposed to bitter substances, they respond. Liggett and his team observed a protective response when the bitter substances were applied.
"They all opened the airway more profoundly than any known drug that we have for the treatment of asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease," Liggett told the BBC. Liggett said that an inhaler with bitter substances, such as quinine or saccharine, could replace or enhance current asthma treatments.
Deshpande and the rest of the research team performed tissue-based studies and also used inhalers on the mice. "There needs to be a high concentration of the bitter substance in order for it to work," explained Deshpande. "If you simply eat something bitter, it gets degraded and will not be at a functional concentration."
"We did do tests on human tissue as well, and it worked," he said. But before any new drugs hit the market, researchers will need to do further tests in order to ensure safety for asthma sufferers. "We need to come up with compounds that are safe to use before testing an inhaler on a human."
Asthma affects 23 million people in the United States, including 7 million children. During an attack, the smooth muscle lining the airway contracts, making it hard to breathe. Drugs such as salbutamol help relax and open the airways in order to restore normal breathing.
It has been a long time since there were new developments in the treatment of asthma, and the researchers have hit unexplored territory."Asthma sufferers can certainly be excited. A drug is not going to come out tomorrow or next week. There are basic safety issues, and we need to find out the other affects these compounds might have. But it's a good start."
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