We still don’t know exactly what causes asthma. “We know that asthma is related to genes, environment, and the interaction between the two,” said Jin-Ah Park. “But asthma remains poorly understood.”

Park is one of the lead authors on a new study that could impact how various diseases such as asthma and cancer are understood and treated. Though we don’t know the exact causes of asthma, many scientists believed that epithelial cells, which line organs and body cavities including one’s airways, are involved. So Park and his team studied them and made an amazing discovery.

In normal airways the epithelial cells remain relatively motionless, as though they’re jammed. But on an asthmatic’s airways the cells swirl about, totally “unjammed.” Now the scientists have to figure out-- does asthma cause the unjamming, or does the unjamming of these cells cause asthma? If it’s the latter, this could greatly change how asthma is understood and treated.

But the impact of this study could go far beyond asthma treatments. Epithelial cells are part of every process that involve cell movement and growth, including cancer. As we learn more about epithelial cells and how they work, hopefully we’ll develop better ways to treat the related diseases. As Harvard bioengineering professor Jeffrey Fredberg puts it, “Trying to define how cells behave, how they exert forces on each other, and how that changes what they do are big open questions. Researchers all over the world are looking more and more at these questions. It’s very exciting.”