Get access

Pathogenesis of severe asthma



Qutayba Hamid, Meakins-Christie Laboratories, McGill University Health Centre, 3626 Rue St-Urbain, Montreal, Quebec, H2X 2P2, Canada.




Patients with severe asthma have asthma symptoms which are difficult to control, require high dosages of medication, and continue to experience persistent symptoms, asthma exacerbations or airflow obstruction. Epidemiological and clinical evidences point to the fact that severe asthma is not a single phenotype. Cluster analyses have identified subclasses of severe asthma using parameters such as patient characteristics, and cytokine profiles have also been useful in classifying moderate and severe asthma. The IL-4/IL-13 signalling pathway accounts for the symptoms experienced by a subset of severe asthmatics with allergen-associated symptoms and high serum immunoglobulin E (IgE) levels, and these patients are generally responsive to anti-IgE treatment. The IL-5/IL-33 signalling pathway is likely to play a key role in the disease pathogenesis of those who are resistant to high doses of inhaled corticosteroid but responsive to systemic corticosteroids and anti-IL5 therapy. The IL-17 signalling pathway is thought to contribute to ‘neutrophilic asthma’. Although traditionally viewed as players in the defence mechanism against viral and intracellular bacterial infection, mounting evidence supports a role for Th1 cytokines such as IL-18 and IFN-γ in severe asthma pathogenesis. Furthermore, these cytokine signalling pathways interact to contribute to the spectrum of clinical pathological outcomes in severe asthma. To date, glucocorticoids are the most effective anti-asthma drugs available, yet severe asthma patients are typically resistant to the effects of glucocorticoids. Glucocorticoid receptor dysfunction and histone deacetylase activity reduction are likely to contribute to glucocorticoid resistance in severe asthma patients. This review discusses recent development in different cytokine signalling pathways, their interactions and steroid resistance, in the context of severe asthma pathogenesis.