Scottish scientists have been studying the effects of parasitic worms and the team at the Strathclyde Institute of Pharmacy and Biomedical Sciences now believe they are close to testing new treatments in patients.
The institute, which has seen its research funding double since it was established in 2006, is due to open a new 36 million facility to build on its work.
Professor Billy Harnett, professor of molecular immunology, said the worm study had been prompted by observations in developing countries.
"What's been noticed over the past ten or 20 years is that people who live in Third World countries tend to have surprisingly low levels of things like asthma and rheumatoid arthritis," he said.
"One of the reasons considered to explain this, because these diseases have been increasing at an enormous rate in the West, was that maybe people were being exposed to something that was giving them some kind of protection against the development of these kind of disease."
This has led researchers at Strathclyde and elsewhere to investigate whether infection with parasitic worms – common in the Third World – could explain lower rates of asthma and arthritis.
The Strathclyde researchers are working with parasites called filarial nematodes, which can cause conditions such as elephantiasis. It causes legs to swell grotesquely. The secretions seem to work by targeting cells in the body known as "mast" cells
"This is a critical cell in asthma," Prof Harnett said. "What happens in asthma is when your mast cells become exposed to things like pollen, for example, they become activated and start to secrete chemicals which cause all the distressing symptoms of asthma.
"This parasite derived molecule seems to block this process."
He said the team had found human mast cells exposed to the molecules from the parasite could switch off the production of dangerous chemicals released during an asthma attack.
Prof Harnett said the tests could result in a treatment in a few years' time.
Dr Elaine Vickers, research relations manager at Asthma UK, said: "Results show the study of parasitic worms and their link to asthma is an exciting area worth further investigation, and may lead to effective new treatments for the 5.4 million people with asthma in the UK."