A DRUG being tested to treat cancer patients could also hold the key to helping asthma sufferers, according to Scottish researchers.
Scientists at the University of Edinburgh found that the drug R-Roscovitine helps to kill certain immune cells which can make the symptoms of asthma worse.
It is believed that the findings could lead to an alternative way of treating asthma in patients who are resistant to steroids.
These are commonly used in asthma treatments but are not suitable for everyone, as they can cause side-effects. In Scotland, 370,000 people, including 72,000 children, are affected by asthma.
For the latest study, published in the journal FEBS Letters, researchers studied the effect that R-Roscovitine had on immune cells known as eosinophils.
Eosinophils, which are found in the lungs and the airways, help the body to fight off parasitic infection.
But having too many uncontrolled eosinophils can damage other cells that line the lung.
This problem can contribute to inflammatory conditions such as asthma.
Researchers found that use of the drug caused the eosinophil cells to undergo a form of cell death known as apoptosis – a natural process whereby unwanted cells are removed from the body.
Professor Adriano Rossi, from the Centre for Inflammation Research at the University of Edinburgh, who directed the study, said using the cancer drug could have a number of benefits.
"Steroids are commonly used to treat asthma but can have unwanted side-effects, while some asthma patients are also resistant to steroid treatment," he said.
"It may well be that use of a drug, such as R-Roscovitine, or one that works in a similar way, could offer an alternative to steroids, or be used in conjunction with steroid treatment for asthma patients."
The drug is currently being tested in the treatment of patients with lymphoma.
Prof Rossi said their own work in asthma involved taking blood from patients and testing the drug in the lab.
"It is early days, but it is not as early days as finding a completely new drug," he said.
"The safety and toxicology has all been done. But it is a big step taking it from lab-based work into a patient."
The research was welcomed by asthma campaigners.
Leanne Metcalf, director of research at Asthma UK, said: "We know that current asthma treatments, including steroids, work in part by reducing the number of eosinophils in the body, and this is a promising avenue for developing new, effective treatments for a condition which affects over five million people in the UK.
"With mounting evidence that eosinophils play a crucial role in severe allergic asthma, these results are particularly exciting because, although R-Roscovitine still has to be fully tested, the drug has already been developed, meaning that we could already be well on the way to finding a treatment to help those individuals that do not respond to steroids."
Ms Metcalf added: "We look forward to seeing how this work develops."