SCOTS scientists have made a breakthrough which could provide relief to asthma sufferers across the world – by “silencing” the genes of the European house dust mite.
The hardy mite is notoriously resistant to conventional pesticides, causing misery to asthma sufferers who are susceptible to allergens found in its droppings.
But now Scots scientists have found a way to “silence” the genes of the tiny bug.
The development could allow scientists to turn the mites’ immune systems against themselves, causing them to self-destruct.
The breakthrough could bring relief to the 5.4m asthma sufferers across the UK, one fifth of whom are children.
Dr Stewart Burgess, from the Moredun Research Institute near Edinburgh, said: “It will now be possible to silence genes at will, allowing us to determine their function and their importance to the mite.
“This in turn will allow us to identify genes that are crucial for mite survival, which could identify new targets for drugs.”
The Scottish breakthroughs have built on the work of American scientists, who discovered a method of “turning off” specific parts of DNA in 1998.
Known as RNA interference, the method allows scientists to stop the production of certain proteins in the body, including areas which cannot normally be affected by normal rugs.
So-called gene silencing has already been used to tackle the varroa mite, a blood-sucking parasite known to be the biggest threat to the honey bee.
Like the European house dust mite, the varroa has developed a resistance to the medication of beekeepers.
But recent developments allowed scientists to turn the bugs’ immune systems against them, effectively making them self-destruct.
Burgess now hopes that the same method can be use to free households of the pest of the European dust mite, thought to be the most common cause of allergic symptoms in humans.
The mites, measuring roughly a quarter of a millimetre long, thrive in carpets, bedding and soft furnishings, and feed on dead skin cells shed by humans.
They produce around 20 waste droppings daily, which cause allergic symptoms affecting roughly 1.2bn people worldwide.
It is also hoped that the breakthrough might have wider applications, as the mite is closely related to scabies mites and sheep scab mites.