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Testosterone could be key to creating more targeted asthma treatments

ABC News logo ABC News 9/05/2017 Stephanie Corsetti

One in nine people in Australia are diagnosed with asthma. © AAP / Alan Porritt One in nine people in Australia are diagnosed with asthma. The male sex hormone testosterone could be the key to understanding why asthma affects women and men differently, medical researchers say.

The researchers said testosterone could block the production of an immune cell, and that could lead to more targeted asthma treatments.

Interest in the lung condition has peaked since a thunderstorm asthma event last year contributed to nine deaths in Victoria.

One in nine people in Australia are diagnosed with asthma (around 2.5 million people), and under the age of 15 the condition is more prevalent in boys.

But in many cases boys seem to grow out of it, and by adulthood asthma becomes more common in women.

Professor Gabrielle Belz, from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, said it was clear that hormones were "acting in different types of receptors in men and women to effect outcomes for viral infections and allergic diseases."

"And so there seems to be a balancing act going on in terms of which hormones are driving it in men and women over time."

The study identified the immune cells that were associated with asthma, and found high levels of testosterone in men lead to them having fewer of the cells than women.

Which meant that men exhibited a reduced susceptibility to allergic airway inflammation in response to environmental allergens.

"So we're able to see when we add testosterone, that the number of cells didn't increase, but when you add estrogen they do increase in number," Professor Belz said.

"So there is a real response going on in how these cells proliferate, and it's an increase in these cells that are found during asthma." Professor Belz said the findings had surprised them, because when they began looking into asthma prevalence, they had initially thought it would be driven by estrogen.

"So it was a bit of curveball to find it was the androgen receptor driving these effects," she said.

She said the discovery had uncovered a specific receptor "that could be potentially targeted."

"But it's really focused our ideas down on identifying other receptors that might be more broadly targeted for diminishing the affects severe to asthma."

Findings could help kids 'have a healthier life'

Stephanie Horan suffers from severe asthma and has to take the maximum dose of medication to control her condition.

She suffered a cardiac arrest 11 years ago because her asthma was so bad, and said that back then she was reluctant to take her medication.

"Being in year 12 it was difficult to take medications, especially in front of people, so I definitely tried to take the minimum dose as much as I could," she said.

"Because there was a social stigma of carrying medications with you."

Her asthma puffer contains steroids, which means disruptive side effects.

"The side effects have been putting on weight, steadily since I've been in year 12 and I started taking it properly," she said.

"From that, it obviously leads to anxiety, and I do battle with depression as well from all of that, especially from the episodes I have had."

Although asthma treatment improvements remain years away, Ms Horan said she hopes they will lead to better health outcomes for children with asthma.

"To not have to take these medications every day and to figure out what the preventive treatments are for them," she said.

"It can lead them to have a healthier life than I did — this research is so important to try to work that out."

The research was conducted with a team from France and has been published today in the Journal of Experimental Medicine.

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