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Can Sugar Inhalation Treat Respiratory Illness?

Samantha DiGrande
A recent study conducted in mice found that the ability of cells to use glucose can actually help to regulate the immune system during lung inflammation.
In the United States and around the world, millions of people live with chronic respiratory conditions, such as asthma and COPD. According to HHS' Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, asthma currently affects 25 million US citizens, while 14.8 million adults have been diagnosed with COPD.

A recent study conducted in mice found that the ability of cells to use glucose can actually help to regulate the immune system during lung inflammation.

Researchers identified that the lungs’ macrophages had “unexpected” reactions to glucose. The authors reported that stimulating the cells with more sugar could help the immune system fight off bronchial infections that lead to pneumonia or intense coughs.

“Hundreds of people are admitted to hospital[s] every day in the [United Kingdom] with asthma attacks, while potentially deadly parasitic infections in the lungs are endemic across much of Africa and Asia. The idea that modifying glucose levels in the lungs could one day be a critical factor in treatment of these conditions is tremendously exciting,” study author, Andrew MacDonald, BSc, PhD, professor at the University of Manchester, said in a statement.

The researchers were able to determine that macrophages need the correct levels of glucose in order to be able to function properly. The team used interleukin 4, which is a protein typically found during inflammation caused by asthma or a parasitic worm infection, to test the association between macrophages and glucose.

Specifically, the authors were able to identify 2 significant results: blocking sugar receptors in the lung may help to reduce inflammation in chronic respiratory conditions, and conversely, boosting glucose levels in the lung could facilitate an immune response in patients with certain respiratory infections.

“During inflammation of the type seen in asthma and parasitic worm infection it appears that glucose, and the use of glucose, controls macrophage activation in the lungs. Clearly, we now need to study the impact of glucose on human lung macrophages,” said MacDonald.

MacDonald also suggested that there’s potential for a glucose receptor-based drug treatment in the future. “It’s reasonable to suggest that short-term inhalation therapy might one day work as such a treatment,” he said.


Svedberg F, Brown S, Krauss M, et al. The lung environment controls alveolar macrophage metabolism and responsiveness in type 2 inflammation [published online April 1, 2019]. Nat Immunol. doi: 10.1038/s41590-019-0352-y

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