Asthma's New Treatment Frontier

Han Lab

The Han Lab: (from left to right) Liang Han, Katy Lawson, Rossie Nho, William Hancock

Asthma impacts more than 40 million Americans, and 10% of the world’s population. However, current anti-inflammatory treatments only partially control the disease’s symptoms. Now, Liang Han, an associate professor in the School of Biological Scienceshas been awarded a $2.47M grant by the National Institute of Health to study the role our nervous system plays in asthma — and the potential for new treatments. The grant will fund five years of research, with work beginning this spring.

“Asthma is typically considered an allergic inflammatory disease,” Han says, “and so the majority of research has previously focused on immune responses. But there is emerging evidence that the nervous system plays a critical role in the disease.”

Han highlights that our lungs are full of sensory nerves, which help monitor their internal state, and play an important role in regulating our breathing patterns and respiratory system. Vagal sensory neurons help send information from the lungs to the brain. Recent data collected by Yanyan Xing, a former postdoctoral researcher in the Han lab and now a scientist at Empress Therapeutics, suggested that blocking a group of vagal sensory neurons stopped the development of asthma symptoms in mice.

“Since these sensory neurons are responsible for responses like coughing, bronchoconstriction, and mucus secretion, all of which are asthma symptoms, we want to investigate whether blocking these neurons can help inhibit asthma in humans,” Han says. “If so, this might prove a promising treatment avenue for asthma.” 

The nervous system connection

In her lab at Georgia Tech, Han’s research team investigates the role the nervous system plays in creating and behavioral responses, and how that contributes to chronic diseases.  “We want to understand how the nervous system receives, transmits, and interprets various stimuli to induce physiological and behavioral responses,” she explains.

This year, Han also received a $550k grant from the National Science Foundation to investigate the neural circuit controlling itch sensation. The research has the potential to uncover new treatments for sensory conditions like chronic itch.

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