Inhaling sugar could be a sweet way to tackle lung infections, new research suggests.
Scientists made the discovery while investigating the impact of glucose on respiratory immune system cells.
They found that blocking sugar-sensitive “receptor” proteins could dampen the inflammation that plays a key role in allergy, asthma, and response to parasites.
But the research had an intriguing flip side – the idea that breathing in sugar might stimulate the lung immune system to fight off infection.
Lead scientist Professor Andrew MacDonald, from the University of Manchester, said: “It is possible that provision of glucose could increase inflammation to help protect against some lung infections.
“It’s reasonable to suggest that short-term inhalation therapy might one day work as such a treatment.”
How sugar might be inhaled is not made clear in the study, published in the journal Nature Immunology.
Theoretically sugar could be “snorted” as a powder, but not “vaped”. When a sugar solution is heated the water evaporates while the sugar crystallises.
The study in mice looked at specialised white blood cells called macrophages. These act as immune system “vacuum cleaners”, removing harmful organisms and debris.
The Manchester team found that macrophages in the lungs need the right level of glucose “fuel” in order to function properly.
Too much sugar stimulation led to inflammation of the type often associated with chronic conditions such as asthma.
Lung inflammation is also linked to the potentially deadly effects of parasitic worm infections, a huge problem in Africa and Asia.
The research suggests that blocking sugar receptors on lung macrophages could help suppress such diseases.
On the other hand, stimulating the cells with more sugar might help the immune system fight off bronchial infections responsible for coughing fits and pneumonia.
Prof MacDonald added: “Respiratory illnesses cause terrible suffering in both the developing and developed world.
“Hundreds of people are admitted to hospital every day in the UK 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.
“Clearly we now need to study the impact of glucose on human lung macrophages.”
Prof MacDonald warned people not to attempt to inhale sugar.
He said: “This study reveals the crucial role sugar plays in immune cells in the airways of mice, but in terms of clinical application in people, it’s very early days, and a great deal more research needs to be carried out before any human treatments could be developed.
“Indeed, we would urge the public not to consider inhaling sugar or any substance, and always speak to their doctor if they have any queries or concerns about treatment.”