‘My ultimate dream? Preventing asthma in children’

It is the sincerest wish of people with a chronic lung disease: that a cure will be found to make their lungs better. In addition to this, prof.dr. Hermelijn Smits (recently appointed full professor at Leiden University Medical Center) hopes that we will find ways to not only cure, but also prevent. Her focus is on a treatment to protect children from developing asthma. The recent discovery of two molecules from worm parasites may help to finding a solution.

Why did you choose a career as a researcher?

‘I like doing research and I am curious. My PhD track focused on the role of the immune system in asthma. I was curious to know what changes in a person's immune system that results in them developing asthma. And what you can do to prevent that.’

What are the latest insights from your research?

‘Commensals play an important role in the research. These benign bacteria and parasites are everywhere in and around us. They influence our defence mechanism so that we do not get severe asthmatic and allergic reactions. We found that the commensals in farm dust help to inhibit the development of allergic asthma, at least in young mice. But which particle in farm dust is causing this beneficial effect? Once we know that, we can replicate the substance to use in a new treatment for children to prevent asthma. We can already reproduce some secreted molecules of worm parasites. We are now learning how to slightly change their shape or composition so that they only have the good effect we want. Namely: preventing asthma. Later, we will be testing the molecules of worm parasites or farm dust on humans.'

What is unique about your approach?

‘We are not studying children who already have asthma, but rather healthy children. Some of them will become ill in the study because on average, seven to ten per cent of young children develop asthma. Comparing the data of healthy children with that of children with asthma provides valuable information. With the support of the Lung Foundation Netherlands, we can continue to find the missing pieces to the puzzle. That will eventually lead to a breakthrough in our research.'

What developments are there in the field?

‘A promising recent development is the discovery of two special molecules from worm parasites. These molecules have a demonstrable effect on the immune system, which means that they may protect against asthma. My group has now patented these molecules to be able to investigate this further. This is important, because in this way we as scientists can start working with a company to process these molecules further so that they can hopefully also be used in humans in the future.
We hope to find even more substances that help prevent asthma so that we can test them in children in the future. The more substances we test, the more children we can ultimately help. We also hope to develop a test in the coming years for children who do not yet have asthma but are at high risk. Such a test makes sense if we can then actually prevent asthma.'