As common a condition as it is, not only does asthma have no cure, but its direct causes remain unknown. New research now suggests that targeting a particular set of molecules could hamper the survival rate of some asthma-inducing cells, possibly paving the way for the development of a cure for the respiratory disease.

As scientists haven't been able to pin down the precise reasons for an onset of asthma, much research has gone into limiting its symptoms rather than preventing it all together. Recent advances in this area include an inhalable powder that binds to trigger allergens and a device that gently blows allergens away from a sufferer's face while they sleep.

But molecular immunologists at the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine say they have zeroed in on a pair of proteins that could serve as a target for treatment. Type 2 innate lymphoid cells, known as ILC2s, are immune cells that kick-off common asthma symptoms, such as the generation of mucus and sensitized airways. The problem with these cells, however, is that they don't express immune cells markers, which makes it hard to target them for therapy.

The team worked with a humanized mouse model to observe how the ILC2s operate in vivo. They found that the interaction of two proteins, an inducible T cell costimulator molecule called ICOS and another called ICOS-ligand (ICOS-L), has a rather large impact on the function and survival of the ILC2s.

"Because ILC2s are the only cells that express both ICOS and ICOS-L, our research sets the stage for designing new therapeutic approaches that target ILC2s to treat asthma," says Hadi Maazi, a research associate at Keck School of Medicine and the study’s first author.

The researchers hope that the molecules may prove to be an effective target for curtailing the symptoms of asthma, and perhaps even lead them to a permanent fix. To this end, they are currently using the mouse model to study how ILC2s contribute to human asthma and test potential therapies in preclinical studies.

"If we can target ILC2s, we might be able to cure asthma or exacerbations caused by these particular cells,” says Omid Akbari, associate professor of molecular and cellular immunology at the Keck School of Medicine and principal investigator of the study. "In this study, we discovered molecules critical to ILC2 homeostasis, survival and function. We believe that targeting these molecules or related pathways could one day cure a patient with ILC2-dependent asthma."

The research is set to be published next week in the journal Immunity.