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Asthma is also more likely to be severe in females. In 2012, of the 1,246 people who died from asthma, 358 were males and 888 were females.
Now, an international team of researchers say that that testosterone – a hormone that drives the development of male sexual characteristics – suppresses the production of a type of immune cell that triggers allergic asthma.
They say the discovery, which has so far only been based on experiments with mice, might one day lead to new, targeted treatments for the condition.
The Role of Hormones
The knowledge that hormones affect the onset and severity of asthma in women led the scientists to try to discover what was happening. They found that higher levels of testosterone in mice helps stop the production of immune cells called innate lymphoid cells – or ILC2s – that have been associated with the start of asthma.
ILC2s are found in the lungs, skin and other organs. These cells produce inflammatory proteins that can cause lung inflammation and damage when exposed to common triggers for allergic asthma, such as pollen, dust mites, cigarette smoke and pet hair.
The study is published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine.
Commenting on the findings in an emailed statement, Dr Erika Kennington, head of research at Asthma UK, says: “We have known for some time that asthma affects more women than men, despite it being more common in boys than in girls during childhood. Although there is evidence to suggest that this may be in part due to female hormones, we don’t yet have a good understanding of why anyone develops asthma, irrespective of sex or age.
“Asthma is a complex condition that affects 1 in 11 people in the UK, yet years of research underfunding means it remains a relative mystery.
“Looking at how testosterone could affect asthma is an innovative area of research. However, this study was in mice and further investigation is needed to see whether the results can be replicated in humans before we can draw any solid conclusions.”