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Bitter tasting substances may help asthma sufferers

The recent discovery of bitter taste receptors in the lungs could change the way asthma and other lung diseases are treated.

Research from the University of Maryland in Baltimore revealed that these taste receptors, similar to those found on the tongue, responded to the exposure of bitter, non-toxic substances by triggering the airways in the lungs to widen.

People living with asthma often find it difficult to breathe when they are in the presence of certain triggers, like pets, dust mites, and certain air pollutants. The muscles that surround their airway become sensitive and tighten, making it difficult to breathe.

The findings came as a surprise to those closely linked to the research. Even the study’s senior author, Dr. Stephen B. Liggett, noted that bitter-tasting substances are often associated with poison, resulting in people avoiding them altogether.

Dr. Liggett initially thought the lung’s bitter taste receptors would prompt a “fight or flight” response in people, causing them to cough and experience tightness in the chest so they would know to seek shelter from their toxic surroundings.

Instead, researchers noticed that exposure to a few standard bitter substances known to activate the receptors opened the airway more than any recognized drug used to treat asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), said Dr. Liggett.

There are thousands of non-toxic substances known to activate bitter taste receptors. Some are synthetic, while others occur naturally in certain vegetables, flowers, and trees. But Dr. Liggett cautions against eating bitter tasting foods in an attempt to treat symptoms of asthma. The best treatment would be chemical modifications of these bitter compounds, which would be inhaled into the lungs using an inhaler, he said.

Research in this direction has already begun: Dr. Liggett and his team also found that administering an aerosolized form of bitter substances, such as saccharin, a sugar substitute used in low calorie and sugar-free products, relaxed the airways of laboratory mice.

According to The Public Health Agency of Canada, an estimated 3,000,000 Canadians live with asthma, many of whom are children.

Original Source: University of Maryland Medical Center

AboutKidsHealth: Asthma Resource Centre 


Deshpande DA, Wang WCH, McIlmoyle EL, Robinett KS, Schillinger RM, An SS, Sham JSK, Liggett SB. “Bitter taste receptors on airway smooth muscle bronchodilate by localized calcium signaling and reverse obstruction.” Nature Medicine. Published online October 24, 2010.