Prof Padraic Fallon from Trinity College Dublin and his collaborators in Britain have found a pathway leading to the development of white blood cells that cause allergic inflammation.
Prof Fallon said the discovery opened up avenues to develop treatments for asthma and other allergic diseases.
“We are still at an experimental stage but we can now look at patients with a view to developing therapies,” he said.
Two years ago he and Dr Andrew McKenzie from Cambridge University announced the discovery of a new white cell, the nuocyte — a previously missing link in the immune pathway that is activated in asthma attacks.
Prof Fallon and Dr McKenzie have now identified a pathway for the development of the nuocytes and a transcription factor — RORalpha, that was shown to be critical for both the generation of nuocytes and allergic-like inflammation.
Prof Fallon said efforts would now concentrate on developing therapeutic strategies that could be exploited commercially.
The research findings, the result of seven years’ work, have just been published in the leading science journal, Nature Immunology, indicating their significance.
Prof Fallon said he was excited about the latest discovery but, as ever, was cautious because the path from the discovery to a drug was always long and arduous.
“We are moving towards the development of the drug for patients, which is great, but that could take five to 10 years,” he said.
Prof Fallon’s work at TCD’s Institute of Molecular Medicine is funded by Science Foundation Ireland, The Wellcome Trust, Health Research Board and National Children’s Research Centre, Ireland.
Frances Guiney, respiratory nurse specialist with the Asthma Society of Ireland, welcomed the research findings.
“We really need to have a better understanding of the mechanisms of asthma if we are to find a cure for the disease,” she said.
About 470,000 Irish people suffer from asthma and Ireland has the fourth highest prevalence of asthma in the world.