There was a time when we assumed the insides of our lungs were devoid of life, apart from our own cells helping us breathe. But now we learn that the lung is home to a wide range of organisms, including fungi. A new study finds that people with asthma have a different blend of fungi in their lungs compared to healthy people who do not have asthma, leading the researchers to suggest this could be a useful avenue for developing new treatments.

The team, from the School of Medicine at Cardiff University in the UK, reports the study, the first large one of its kind, in the 5 February online issue of BMC Infectious Diseases.

Study leader, Hugo van Woerden from Cardiff University’s Institute of Primary Care and Public Health, says in a statement:

“Our analysis found that there are large numbers of fungi present in healthy human lungs. The study also demonstrates that asthma patients have a large number of fungi in their lungs and that the species of fungi are quite different to those present in the lungs of healthy individuals.”

He and his colleagues suggest the hundreds of tiny fungal particles they found in the lungs of asthma patients could hold new clues for treating the respiratory illness.

For their study, they examined the mucus or sputum of people with and without asthma, drawn from the same community.

They found a total of 136 different species of fungi across both groups, with 90 more common in the people with asthma and 46 more common in the healthy people without asthma.

“Of particular interest was the presence of Malassezia pachydermatis, which is known to be associated with atopic dermatitis”, notes the team.

The main value of the study is that it establishes that the lungs are home to fungi, and that people with asthma may have a particular blend of fungal colonies, which could open up a new field of research, bringing together molecular techniques for identifying fungi and developing treatments, says van Woerden.

“In the future it is conceivable that individual patients may have their sputum tested for fungi and their treatment adjusted accordingly,” he adds.

In November 2012, another group of researchers in Scotland reported that drying laundry indoors could pose health risks for people prone to asthma because the increased humidity encourages molds and dust mites.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD