A new study has identified genetic factors that help predict which children are more likely to get severe asthma attacks when they have a cold. The Malaghan Institute’s Professor Franca Ronchese reports.
There’s a strong and troubling link between colds and severe asthma attacks. Every winter, many children end up in emergency rooms needing strong steroidal intervention to manage symptoms brought on from an attack associated with a viral infection.
A study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison has recently shed some light on why this happens. Importantly, it has uncovered several genetic factors that help predict which children are more likely to have severe attacks when coupled with upper respiratory infections. This study, and similar research, may one day help doctors prescribe early intervention treatments to prevent such attacks from occurring in the first place.
Importance of genetic research
The work, say Professor Franca Ronchese of New Zealand’s Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, highlights the growing importance genetic research has on the way we target and treat allergic diseases such as asthma.
“The elegance of this work is that it’s based on patient samples that can be collected relatively easily and was done observing natural exposure to cold virus in the community” says Prof Ronchese.
“The researchers took samples from patients – in this case children with a history of asthma attacks – and then looked at their immune system in the nose and blood. They then monitored those patients over the course of the study. If a patient got a cold, they would return for another round of sampling.
“The researchers then compared the before and after samples to see how the immune system had reacted, and which genes were being expressed. With this information, they were able to find groups or families of genes that were associated with triggering asthma attacks in the presence or absence of the cold virus.”
A path toward personalised treatment
This data is particularly important, says Prof Ronchese, because it paves a clear path for emerging therapies that take this information and construct highly personalised treatments regimes.
By identifying which children are more likely to have severe asthma attacks when they have a cold, doctors may be able to prescribe more adequate medications earlier, to prevent an attack from happening in the first place.
“Current asthma medication isn’t ideal,” says Prof Ronchese.
“Steroidal treatments aren’t great, especially for children, because they wipe out our immune cells. We need to find a better way to treat allergic disease. By continuing to improve and refine our understanding of the genetic role in allergic disease, we can hopefully transition from a scatter gun approach of steroids and move to a gentler, more targeted and individual approach.
Parallel with New Zealand research
The research by the University of Wisconsin-Madison has particularly excited Prof Ronchese, as it closely parallels similar genetic work done by her team investigating the initiation of skin allergies and provides encouragement around the potential for using technology to investigate the genetic links between diseases.
“Experiments like these create huge amounts of data that can be looked at by different scientists investigating different gene groups in labs all over the world. Our interest is in the skin and skin diseases like eczema, so it would be really exciting to have similar data with such patients in a clinical setting and see if we can draw similar conclusions.”
Read more about the research: Study identifies why some colds cause asthma attacks in children
Professor Franca Ronchese is the immune cell biology programme leader at the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research.