SEATTLE -- The Benaroya Research Institute at Virginia Mason has received $8 million to focus on a certain set of cells, known as epithelial cells. They are the cells that form a very important barrier between your lungs and everything in our environment.

"They are deciders; they decide whether whatever it contacts is friendly or foe. And if it's considered to be a good guy then you don't have a response, and you're perfectly fine. But if it's like a virus influenza rhino virus, which causes the common cold, these are the cells that get infected first," said Dr. Steven Ziegler is the director of immunology at BRI. Ziegler is also leading the research on the grant awarded by the National Institutes of Health.

Ziegler explains that scientists believe defective epithelial cells are the cause of asthma and their research starts with what they call a lung in a dish. Scientists isolated epithelial cells, collected from a human being, and grow them in a petri dish. They react exactly the same way they would in the human body so researchers can expose the cells to viruses, allergens, diesel particles, whatever they want, to learn how the cells respond.

Ziegler says while they've tracked the source of asthma to defective cells they still don't know why they are malfunctioning, mounting over the top responses to common irritants like cat dander or pollen. Asthmatics are also allergic, so when they breathe in an allergen it spurs an asthmatic attack

There are two main goals of this grant. The first to simply understand how the cells work. Dr. Ziegler says the second goal is even more hopeful.

"We find new novel pathways that are disrupted in an asthmatic versus say a healthy individual and that we can use that knowledge to design drugs to target that pathway to treat the disease and that sort of the global hope," explains Ziegler.

One in four people are allergic, one in six or seven are asthmatic; it's a huge problem to huge societal problem. Benaroya typically focuses on autoimmune disease, but they say asthma is similar to autoimmune diseases in that attack one's own body system. BRI will combine their findings with the six other universities who are also part of the grant, all hoping to find a better way to breathe.