Breathing Difficulty In People With Asthma

In asthma, the contraction of the airway smooth muscle and the subsequent decrease in airflow involve a poorly understood set of mechanical and biochemical events. Organ-level and molecular-scale models of the airway are frequently based on purely mechanical or biochemical considerations and do not account for physiological mechanochemical couplings. Here, they present a microphysiological model of the airway that allows for the quantitative analysis of the interactions between mechanical and biochemical signals triggered by compressive stress on epithelial cells.

Researchers at Rutgers and other institutions have discovered how muscle contraction (bronchospasm) in the airway; which cause breathing difficulty in people with asthma, occur by creating a microdevice that mimics the behavior of the human airways. The study, published in the July 2019 issue of the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering and previously online; which could lead to new treatment strategies for respiratory diseases, said co-author Reynold Panettieri, director of the Rutgers Institute for Translational Medicine and Science.

People with asthma

Bronchospasm can occur in both healthy people and those who suffer from serious respiratory diseases; such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Studying why the smooth muscle surrounding bronchial airways; which can suddenly contract and lead to difficulties in breathing is difficult due to the complexities of bronchospasm; also the fact that the human respiratory system cannot be modeled in animal studies.

To analyze the biochemical and mechanical signals that occur between cells during spasms; so the researchers created a microdevice a “bronchi on a chip” one thousandth the size of a human hair containing cells from healthy and asthmatic lungs that mimics the function of a lung on single-cell levels. When they triggered a simulated bronchospasm on the device; so the researchers discover that the initial contraction prompts the secretion of hormone-like compounds; so that either can induce an additional constriction or relax the spasm.

Smooth muscle in airways

In people with asthma, the smooth muscle surrounding the airways is more reactive; also contracts more easily in response to stimuli such as allergens, leading to extended bronchial spasms; wheezing and shortness of breath. They also found that inducing a second asthmatic trigger during a bronchial spasm at a precise time will actually cause the smooth muscle to relax and stop the spasm.

The treatments for bronchospam have not changed in the past 50 years, Panettieri said; since they work for most but not all people. “The microdevice allowed us to drill down into how single cells; so interact with each other in relation to smooth muscle contraction in a variety of lung diseases,” said Panettieri. “Being able to study the mechanics on the single-cell level; also view thousands of cells simultaneously can be an important screening tool for the development of new drugs; so for people with asthma who don’t respond to current treatment.”