A Newcastle researcher has discovered a link between iron and asthma that could lead to new treatments for the disease, which affects about 11 per cent of Australia's population.
In a world-first, Associate Professor Jay Horvat's study showed a relationship between "iron build-up in the lung cells and tissues and the severity of asthma".
Dr Horvat, of the Hunter Medical Research Institute, said "all cells in our body need iron".
"Too much iron can be bad and too little iron can be bad," he said.
"We know that both high and low iron levels are reported in asthma, so we sought to investigate whether increased or decreased levels of iron makes the disease worse."
The study showed that lower iron levels "outside of cells" and higher iron levels "within cells" were associated with lower lung function and asthma.
"We believe that the immune system's role in hiding iron within the lung cells may be contributing to asthma's severity."
Dr Horvat, who teaches immunology and microbiology at the University of Newcastle, began examining iron because "one of the first things the body does when trying to protect against bacterial infections in particular is they hide all the iron within the cells".
Bacteria that infect human bodies had developed ways to "source iron from various proteins and cells within our body".
"The bugs need the iron," he said.
"Obviously our body wants to try to protect itself from an infection. So the body fights back by hiding the iron.
"In hiding the iron, we noticed changes that occur within the cells that are bringing the iron in.
"Our research is showing that the cells that do this have an altered function and that is playing an important role in driving disease."
The build-up of iron in the lungs was "playing a really important role in a lot of the pathological processes that underpin a lot of respiratory disease - like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and emphysema".
"We've found we can modify the cells that are taking up the iron in such a way that we can halt the progression of asthma," he said.
More research will be done to investigate the role and therapeutic use of iron in asthma. This could lead to treatments for various types of respiratory disease. Such therapies would involve targeting the increased accumulation of iron in the lungs.