Microscope image of developing lung structure
Asthma is the most common chronic lung disease worldwide, affecting more than 300 million people including 1 in 9 Australians. The disease is debilitating and potentially life-threatening, rising in incidence and has no cure.
Our researchers are investigating how immune cells contribute to the development of asthma. This work will lead to new ways of controlling immune cells to treat the disease.

Our asthma research

Our researchers are:

  • Investigating the role of immune cells in causing airway inflammation.
  • Targeting an epigenetic pathway to switch off harmful immune cells.
  • Developing ways of thinning mucus to treat airway disease.
  • Determining why women are more susceptible to asthma.
  • Investigating the causes of thunderstorm asthma.
  • Working with clinicians and industry partners to find better ways of treating asthma.

What is asthma?

Asthma is a common inflammatory disease of the airways.

Normally the airways are open and relaxed, allowing air to easily move in and out. People with asthma have sensitive airways that are primed to react to triggers in the environment, leading to an asthma attack.

The triggers that bring on an asthma attack vary between different people. Asthma is often triggered by the immune system responding to inhaled substances such as pollen, house dust mites and mould spores. Asthma attacks can also be triggered by the common cold, exercising, or by environmental irritants like cigarette smoke and pollution.

During an asthma attack, the airway lining becomes swollen, inflamed and thick with mucous. The muscles in the airways tighten, narrowing the airways. These changes restrict airflow, making it difficult to breathe.

Asthma attacks can come on gradually or quickly. When asthma occurs as an acute attack, the airflow restriction can be life threatening. Each year approximately 400 people in Australia die from asthma.

Symptoms of asthma

Most people with asthma only show symptoms when they are exposed to their trigger, bringing on an asthma attack. Symptoms of asthma include:

  • Tight chest
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Coughing

Symptoms are often worse during exercise, at night or in the early morning when the weather is cool.

Risk factors for developing asthma

The precise cause of asthma is unknown. Factors that are associated with an increased risk of asthma include:

  • Family history of asthma, eczema, hay fever or other allergies
  • Exposure to tobacco smoke, especially as a baby or young child
  • Exposure to environmental hazards
  • Obesity
  • Sedentary lifestyle

In adults, asthma is two times more prevalent and more severe in women than men, despite being more common in boys than girls before puberty.

Indigenous Australians are nearly twice as likely to have asthma compared with non-Indigenous Australians.

Thunderstorm asthma

Thunderstorm asthma is a form of asthma triggered by grass pollen released into the air during some thunderstorms. In these conditions large numbers of people may suffer severe asthma attacks, even if they have never had asthma before.

The frequency of thunderstorm asthma events is predicted to increase, but the risk factors are poorly understood. Our researchers are investigating the environmental and patient factors that put people at risk of thunderstorm asthma. This work will lead to better warning systems and urban planning advice to keep people safe from thunderstorm asthma.

How is asthma treated?

There is no cure for asthma but with appropriate therapy the disease can be well controlled. Common medications include:

  • Relievers: drugs that give rapid relief of symptoms during an asthma attack by opening up the airways to make breathing easier.
  • Preventers: drugs, usually anti-inflammatory steroids, taken every day to reduce the likelihood of asthma attacks. These drugs reduce the redness and swelling in the airways and help to dry up the mucous.
  • Combination preventers: drugs combining a long-acting airway relaxer and an anti-inflammatory steroid preventer, which work together to help control asthma symptoms.
  • Severe asthma treatments: an injectable treatment given every 2-4 weeks for people with severe disease that is not controlled by maximal preventer therapy.

Alongside these medications, people with asthma should ask their medical practitioner to write an Asthma Action Plan that explains how to manage their condition and what to do during an asthma attack.

For more detailed information on asthma treatment, visit Asthma Australia or the National Asthma Council of Australia

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An international research team has discovered that testosterone protects males against developing asthma, helping to explain why females are two times more likely to develop asthma than males after puberty.

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Institute researchers are searching for new ways to treat thunderstorm and chronic allergic asthmas by targeting the immune cells that drive asthma.