September 17, 2004
A researcher in biochemistry and molecular biology at Mayo Clinic Scottsdale has confirmed a long suspected link between a rare white blood cell and asthma.
The finding could lead to new ways of treating the disease, according to the researcher.
James Lee and a team of researchers found that a mouse they created without the white blood cell eosinophil didn’t contract asthma despite inhaled allergies. Their study appears in today’s issue of the journal Science.
“We tried to give that mouse asthma and couldn’t,” Lee said. “It had allergy symptoms like mucus in its lungs and wheezing, but didn’t get asthma, unlike mice that had the eosinophil cell.”
More than 317,000 Arizonans have asthma, according to the American Lung
Association. More than 80,000 of those are children. Asthma is a chronic inflammation of the airways with reversible episodes of obstruction, caused by an increased reaction of the airways to various stimuli.
Lee said eight years of research seems worth it now that he and his colleagues targeted eosinophil as an essential component of asthma. Eosinophils are a part of the immune defense system. They have been shown to be present in airways affected by asthma. That led to the belief they were at least partly responsible for inflammation and breathing difficulties caused by asthma.
“Most of the time we worked on this, we had people telling us not to do it because it wasn’t going to go anyplace,” Lee said. “We didn’t listen to them. We stuck to our guns and we win.”
Lee said staying in a laboratory for long periods of time can get extraordinarily boring and that researchers usually don’t get to see these types of results. Lee called the discovery the first time he did anything “this significant” since becoming a researcher in 1976.
“Lots of times you’re wrong,” Lee said. “You do 10 things and if three work, you’re a Hall of Famer. If two work, you’re a bum playing in Toledo. Go figure.”
Dr. William Morgan, an allergist and founder of the Arizona Asthma and Allergy Institute in Scottsdale, attended a recent lecture Lee gave regarding his research.
“It fits another part of the missing links,” Morgan said. “If you can find a drug that can get rid of eosinophil, which causes inflammation, it would be very helpful. Eosinophil causes tremendous tissue damage. The next step will be figuring what drug can be used to suppress it or do genetic engineering to suppress the cell and not cause side effects. This is very important information.”
Stacey Paullin, director of development for the lung association, which has funded Lee’s research with $145,000 in grants since 1997 — $70,000 over the last two years — said Lee’s findings should open doors for further research and pharmaceutical work.
“We focus on asthma, and hearing this was a great thing for us,” Paullin said.
Lee and Paullin said it’s hard to determine when drugs might be developed. Lee, a longtime asthmatic, believes drug research has potential because of his findings.
“It’s a long road,” he said. “It’s a series of baby steps. There’s no sense trying to overstate or understate it. At least we’re walking in the right direction.”