Sufferers of asthma live with a constant unease that an attack can strike at any time. Equally disconcerting is our lack of understanding of its causes and where a cure might come from. But researchers at Cardiff University may have just lifted the veil on this condition, claiming to have not only uncovered its root cause, but drugs that can curtail its symptoms.

In their research, the scientists worked with mouse models and human airway tissue from both sufferers and non-sufferers of asthma. They were able to identify the exact cells that narrow the airways and set off an attack.

The team established that environmental triggers like allergens and cigarette smoke activate a receptor known as the calcium sensing receptor (CaSR). It found this in turn to be the driver of asthma symptoms that make breathing difficult.

But the good news doesn't stop there. They say CaSR can be neutralized with existing drugs called calcilytics, first produced around 15 years ago as a treatment candidate for osteoporosis.

"Our paper shows how these triggers release chemicals that activate CaSR in airway tissue and drive asthma symptoms like airway twitchiness, inflammation, and narrowing," says principal investigator Professor Daniela Riccardi. "Using calcilytics, nebulized directly into the lungs, we show that it is possible to deactivate CaSR and prevent all of these symptoms."

For many sufferers of asthma, its symptoms can be kept under control through inhalers and medicine. But around five percent don't respond too well to available treatments, and it is for this minority that this breakthrough could have a huge impact.

The team is now shifting its focus to facilitating human trials within two years. It is hopeful that successful trials will lead to new forms of treatment and ultimately, the prevention of asthma all together.

"If we can prove that calcilytics are safe when administered directly to the lung in people, then in five years we could be in a position to treat patients and potentially stop asthma from happening in the first place," says Riccardi.

The research was published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.