A leading immunologist believes the humble hookworm holds the key to eradicating asthma and symptoms of autoimmune conditions such as Crohn’s and celiac disease in children.

Dr Severine Navarro, an immunologist at Cairns’ James Cook University, has discovered that a particular molecule secreted by hookworms – known as ‘anti-inflammatory protein-2 (AIP-2)’ – can trigger almost a complete reversal of asthma, and also restored lung function, when tested in mice.

Now, the Bank of Queensland (BOQ) is funding Dr Navarro’s study, through the Children’s Hospital Foundation (CHF), to see if the same incredible result may be achieved young children.

Asthma is one of the most prevalent chronic conditions among children, a chronic, inflammatory condition of the airways for which there is currently no cure. The condition can severely impact children’s quality of life and even cause their death. One in nine Australians – approximately 2.5 million people – suffer from asthma, with the most-afflicted being children aged from birth to 14 years.

Speaking in Brisbane today at BOQ’s ‘It’s Possible Cycle Tour’ launch, Dr Navarro said the next stage of her research would focus on applying the same research principles demonstrated with adults in young children to potentially prevent asthma before it forms.

“To date we’ve been able to show that the AIP-2 protein supresses airway inflammation in asthma in mice. It also appears to reduce the proliferation of some immune cells in the blood of people with allergies,” Dr Navarro said.

“We know that when treatment is provided early in life we have a window of opportunity where we can ensure that a young child’s immune system becomes fully functional and is able to see allergens as “non-harmful”.

“Over the next year we will be collecting and analysing blood and tissue samples from patients at Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital in Brisbane and hope to be able to replicate these promising results.”

Dr Navarro said results of the project would be used to inform clinical trials into incorporating the protein into a new drug for children.

“We know that hookworms contain immune effects but our focus moving forward is on the molecules that they secrete which we hope, in time, to incorporate into a new drug to protect newborn babies from chronic respiratory illnesses,” she said.

Children’s Hospital Foundation Chief Executive Officer, Rosie Simpson, said Dr Navarro’s research had the potential to significantly decrease the prevalence of childhood asthma in Australia and overseas.

“This ground-breaking research could not only improve the quality of life for thousands of sick Queensland kids suffering from chronic respiratory illnesses but also help babies develop a natural immunity and avoid the need for medical treatment altogether.

“Thanks to the generous support from partners like BOQ, we can continue to fund research to achieve faster diagnoses, better treatments and ultimately cures for some of the most devastating childhood illnesses,” Ms Simpson said.

Earlier this month, BOQ riders, business partners and friends cycled 350km over three days through the Noosa hinterland and raised $100,000 for the Children’s Hospital Foundation.