Europe wide study to examine causes of asthma

Imperial College London and Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitšt (LMU) Munich are to take the lead in a Euro 11 million (GBP 8 million) study to examine how genetics and environment influence the development of asthma in Europe.

The GABRIEL project, funded through an EC Framework 6 grant, involves over 150 scientists from 14 European countries and Russia, using the latest research across a variety of disciplines, including genetics, epidemiology and immunology, to identify key factors in the development of asthma bronchiale.

Professor Bill Cookson, from Imperial College London, and co-ordinator of the study, said: "Asthma bronchiale is the major chronic childhood illness in Europe costing the European Community more than Euro three billion each year. Although effective therapies for mild asthma exist, the 10 percent of children with severe disease account for 60 percent of this expense, and even when treatment is effective it is not able to cure the disease."

Asthma is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental effects, and despite being rare a hundred years ago, it has become increasingly common in developed societies across the world. Scientists believe rural environments are strongly protective against the disease, and increasing urbanisation may be contributing to the rise in the numbers affected.

Professor Cookson added: "We hope this study will help us identify just how genes and the environment cause the development of asthma, identifying both risk and protective factors, with the long-term aim of preventing the illness."

Professor Erika von Mutius from LMU Munich and co-leader of the project added: "Previous studies have shown the causes of asthma are incredibly diverse with a huge number of genetic and environmental factors all potentially having an impact. Traditionally it has been hard to analyse all the genetic and environmental information but the latest developments in areas such as genomics and bioinformatics now allow us to analyse this huge and complicated amount of data."

As well as looking at genetic and environmental interactions, GABRIEL will study the molecular basis for environmental factors which can increase the risk of industrial asthma. It will also identify the agents which protect strongly against asthma in rural and farming communities and use genetics, genomics and proteomics to discover novel genetic and microbial factors that cause or protect against asthma.

The project will test genetic factors in over 40,000 subjects with childhood or adult asthma, with data from environmental factors such as tobacco smoke, air pollution, nutrition, allergen exposure and industrial agents.

Professor von Mutius added: "One particular area we will be looking at is the 'hygiene hypothesis', a theory which argues a lack of exposure to microbes in early childhood may cause an increased risk of developing asthma and allergies. Earlier work has indicated this may be the case, but we hope the scale of GABRIEL will allow us to properly test the hypothesis and to identify the responsible agents."

GABRIEL will also develop model systems to investigate the molecular basis of genetic and environmental interactions which influence asthma, and use these model systems to translate novel findings into means of prevention and treatment for asthma.

Professor von Mutius added: "This type of very large-scale study can only be carried out with International co-operation. We are most fortunate that we are able to carry out the GABRIEL project within Europe, with its wide diversity of environments and genes and its shared scientific heritage."

Professor Cookson added: "GABRIEL would not be possible without European Community funding. It allows us to draw on the best of asthma and genetic research from many countries. The protective effect of a rural childhood indicates that asthma is a potentially preventable illness. We hope that GABRIEL will lead us to a clearer idea of what we may be able to use to prevent the disease from appearing."

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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