WASHINGTON – The ability to taste isn’t limited to the mouth, and researchers say that discovery might one day lead to better treatments for diseases such as asthma.
It turns out that receptors for bitter tastes are also found in the smooth muscles of the lungs and airways. These muscles relax when they’re exposed to bitter tastes, according to a report Sunday from researchers from the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore in the online edition of the journal Nature Medicine.
That surprised Dr. Stephen B. Liggett, a lung expert who noted that bitter tastes often are associated with poisonous plants, causing people to avoid them.
Liggett said he expected the bitter-taste receptors in the lungs to produce a “fight or flight” reaction, causing chest tightness and coughing so people would leave the toxic environment.
“But that’s not what we found,” Liggett said.
Instead, when scientists tested some nontoxic bitter compounds on mice and on human airways in the laboratory, the airways relaxed and opened more widely.
The compounds “all opened the airway more profoundly than any known drug that we have for treatment of asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,” Liggett said.
Liggett, who hopes to begin tests in humans within a year, said that eating bitter-tasting foods or compounds would not help in the treatment of asthma. Instead, he said, to get a sufficient dose, people will need to use aerosolized compounds, which can be inhaled.