British Columbia

UBC researcher says massive asthma study could lead to new treatments

The research examined the DNA of over 142,000 people, both asthma sufferers and non-sufferers to find which genes were susceptible to asthma. The lead Canadian researcher says it could even lead to ways to prevent the disease.

Research involved 45 teams that examined DNA from 142,000 people around the world

The researchers note that asthma affects more than 300 million people around the world including 10 to 20 per cent of children. (CBC)

A University of British Columbia researcher says the results of a massive asthma study could lead to new ways of treating or even preventing the disease.

The research, published Friday in the journal Nature Genetics, examined the DNA of more than 142,000 people, both asthma sufferers and non-sufferers to find which genes were susceptible to asthma.

Denise Daley, the lead Canadian researcher on the project, said the study found five new genes that were linked to asthma. Previously, there were 21 known asthma-linked genes.

She also says it's the largest ever academic study of asthma genetics and could lead to new ways of tackling the disease.

"The biggest thing that is at stake is that by the time many asthmatics develop clinical symptoms … there are biological changes that have happened that are not reversible," she said.  "Rather than treating the disease, in my view, it would be better to prevent it.

"By understanding the genetics, can we understand the mechanisms that are involved and prevent it?"

Still much to learn

The research involved 45 teams from Europe, North America, Mexico, Australia and Japan who looked for similarities in the DNA of asthma sufferers.

Some results of the study are not new, but Daley says they have never been replicated at this scale or across so many ethnicities and places of origin.

The Canadian team, she explained, was particularly interested in a gene called EMSY, which is connected to peanut allergies.

"Peanut allergies and asthma are very correlated with each other," she said. The same is true for other allergies and eczema, she added, and 80 per cent of asthmatics have some sort of allergy.

"It's been known that there are these correlations between these diseases but [we're] trying to understand exactly how that arises and what is the exact mechanism involved. We believe the genetic results are going to help us sort that out."

Daley says one aspect that remains unknown is how gene variants come into play. As an example, she says some variations of the EMSY gene may make a person more likely to develop asthma, and another makes one allergic to peanuts.

Possible genetic tests

Daley says one of the most exciting possible results of the study is the chance to develop a genetic test for asthma that will identify who is at the greatest risk for the disease.

"We're seeing the same genes come up and that the genes are involved in common biological pathways," she said, adding the large sample size of the study will help design a test to more accurately find the gene variants that cause the most asthma risk.

"That will allow us to start developing more personalized medicine."

The researchers note that asthma affects more than 300 million people around the world including 10 to 20 per cent of children.

It is caused by a combination of genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors.

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