A common anti-inflammatory drug used to treat allergies and asthma could prevent liver disease and reduce the need for liver transplants. Texas researchers found that the medication cromolyn sodium blocked cells that cause liver scarring (fibrosis), which can lead to cirrhosis.
Cromolyn sodium, sold as Nasalcrom, prevents mast cells from triggering the body's immune response that causes symptoms of allergy-induced asthma. It is prescribed as a solution that's used with a nasal applicator and is inhaled through the nose.
It was originally developed from an herb called ammi visnaga. Also known as the toothpick plant, it's been used for centuries in Egypt as a treatment for kidney stones.
The Texas study evaluated mast cells (MCs), which are known to infiltrate and multiply after liver injury and release histamine, which causes fibrosis.
Using a model that mimics human PSC, researchers found that the drug successfully blocked that histamine, which in turn reduced fibrosis.
The new findings could most impact patients with primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC), a chronic disease that damages bile ducts and causes serious liver damage. The disease has no effective treatments and patients have few options other than a liver transplant.
"We have been examining mast cells for a number of years in my lab and found that they become more prominent and active during disease, so the overall goal of my research is to find drugs to target mast cells and render them inactive," said Heather L. Bradley-Francis, Ph.D.
"This particular study was a direct outgrowth of previous published work involving the same drug for bile duct damage and liver cancer," she said.
"We were pleasantly surprised to find that our data and results matched what we had hypothesized about the drug’s effect on PSC, based on that previous work."
Ultimately, cromolyn sodium could result in fewer liver transplants and potentially shorter transplant waitlists.
Currently, the drug is also being used to treat the autoimmune disorder irritable bowel syndrome.
PSC, which causes swelling and scarring in the liver due to short-term damage (such as injury) or long-term damage (such as alcohol abuse), typically is diagnosed in people in their 30s or 40s. In time, the disease can lead to liver failure, infections, or tumors.
According to the American Liver Foundation, about 17,000 American adults and children have been approved for transplants and are waiting for donors.
There is a severe shortage of donor organs, and more than 1,500 people die every year waiting for a donated liver.
The study was published in the scientific journal Hepatology.
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