New study to predict and prevent asthma

Managing severe asthma

Southampton scientists delve deeper into the causes of asthma.

Asthma remains the most common chronic disease of childhood and avoidable deaths from asthma occur every day, despite improvements in treatment.

A landmark study, led by Professor Hasan Arshad from the NIHR Southampton Respiratory Biomedical Research Unit, will analyse the genes that increase asthma risk. By doing this, they aim to predict which children will develop asthma and try to prevent it.

The $3.8 million study, funded by the National Institute of Health, will be run in collaboration with La Jolla Institute of Allergy & Immunology in San Diego and the David Hide Centre on the Isle of Wight.

Predicting who is at risk

Children often wheeze in early childhood and the majority of these children improve and do not develop asthma. But about a third develop asthma by the age of six. By that time it is too late to prevent it.

Asthma runs in families, and often develops early in life. Several genes have been identified which increase asthma risk. Substances that cause an allergic reaction, such as dust mites, can activate or suppress these genes, through a process known as ‘epigenetics’.

Epigenetic processes influence when and how much different genes are turned on and off, affecting how the body develops and works. By studying these processes in children at risk of asthma from birth to the age of six, the team hope to reveal the ideal time and possible ways to prevent the condition.

Preventing asthma

Around 80% of asthma cases are caused by an underlying allergy. Allergies are due to the immune system becoming overly vigilant, treating harmless substances as a threat.

While allergies and allergic asthma often develop at a young age, the unit’s previous research in the MAPS study showed it may be possible to prevent them from developing in the first place.

Similar to a vaccine, they discovered that giving an extract of the dust mite allergen to high risk babies meant fewer went on to develop a dust mite allergy at 18 months.

This new phase of the study will assess whether the vaccine had a lasting effect by analysing whether epigenetic markers in these children were affected by the vaccine.  

Their findings will be used to develop drugs that could be used to prevent or treat asthma.
Posted on Monday 20 February 2017