Harvard Researchers Are Developing a New Treatment for Asthma

Scientists created a 'muscle-on-a-clip' that replicates muscles contracting in the windpipe.

Harvard's Wyss Institute and Harvard SEAS provided photo to bostonmagazine.com

Harvard’s Wyss Institute and Harvard SEAS provided photo to bostonmagazine.com

Asthma is a disease that causes people to wheeze, cough, and have difficulty taking deep breaths. According to the Allergy and Asthma Foundation of America, the disease affects 25 million people in the U.S., and although there are a number of medications to help asthmatics manage their breathing, researchers at Harvard say many of those medications have not been updated in more than 50 years.

That’s why researchers at the Wyss Institute for Biology Inspired Engineering created something called a ‘muscle-on-a-clip.’ The device could be used to test new drugs, the researchers say, because “it accurately mimics the way smooth muscle contracts in the human airway, under normal circumstances and when exposed to asthma triggers.” These findings were published August 5 in the journal Lab on a Chip. 

“Our chip offers a simple, reliable, and direct way to measure human responses to an asthma trigger,” says the study’s lead author, Alexander Peyton Nesmiortth, in a statement. 

MIT researchers describe the muscle-on-a-clip as a soft polymer that is attached on a small glass material. It contains small airway muscles, engineered by MIT researchers, which mimics the structure of the human airway in the respiratory system.

The Wyss Institute explains in a report how it works:

To mimic the typical allergic asthma response, the team first introduced interleukin-13 (IL-13) to the chip. IL-13 is a natural protein often found in the airway of asthmatic patients that mediates the response of smooth muscle to an allergen. Then they introduced acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that causes smooth muscle to contract. Sure enough, the airway muscle on the chip hypercontracted – and the soft chip curled up – in response to higher doses of the neurotransmitter. They achieved the reverse effect as well and triggered the muscle to relax using drugs called β-agonists, which are used in inhalers.

“Asthma is one of the top reasons for trips to the emergency room, particularly for children, and a large segment of the asthmatic population doesn’t respond to currently available treatments,” said Donald Ingber, founding director of the Wyss Institute, and a professor at Harvard Medical School. “The airway muscle-on-a-chip provides an important and exciting new tool for discovering new therapeutic agents.”