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Caption: Professor Jeroen Douwes
Health researchers at Massey University have been awarded nearly $1.2 million to identify an anomaly in one particular underlying cause of asthma in New Zealand.
The Health Research Council funding of $1,191,469 is for a three-year study into why some children with no signs of airway inflammation still suffer from asthma - a disease that affects an estimated one in four children and one in five adults in New Zealand.
It is commonly thought that inflammation of the airway causes asthma symptoms such as wheezing, breathlessness and chest tightness. The study led by Professor Jeroen Douwes from the Centre for Public Health Research at the College of Health aims to solve the mystery of why that isn’t the reason for all asthma cases.
Fellow researcher Dr Collin Brooks says a network of nerves regulates the airways and these may be impaired in asthma, resulting in sensory and structural pathways in the airway not functioning properly without causing inflammation.
“This may lead to the airways being too constricted in general, more likely to constrict due to psychological influences, such as stress or being overly responsive to stimulation by normally innocuous things like cold air.”
The funding will test the hypothesis that neurogenic dysfunction is a key mechanism underlying childhood asthma, particularly in those who have no airway inflammation and for the 30 to 50 per cent for whom current asthma treatment is not effective.
Samples from the airways will be collected from 120 asthmatic as well as 60 non-asthmatic children and analysed for immune and neurogenic indicators.
Dr Brooks says if the Massey study shows neurogenic dysfunction is the key mechanism underlying asthma “it would get us away from the dogma that asthma is always an inflammatory disease and, therefore, should always be treated as an inflammatory disease.
“It would open up new options for improved asthma treatment particularly for patients who don’t seem to have airway inflammation and are less likely to respond to treatment targeting inflammation, such as inhaled corticosteroids.”
The study’s findings could lead to a radical shift in understanding the causes of asthma and identify innovative pathways for effective interventions for all asthmatics.
Professor Douwes described asthma as a major public health issue in New Zealand, which has one of the highest rates of the illness in the world.
‘It is the most common cause of childhood hospital admissions, causes considerable school and work absenteeism, reduces quality of life and increases stress. It is conservatively estimated to cost the economy $825 million a year.”
Created: 29/07/2014 | Last updated: 01/08/2014
Page authorised by Assistant Vice-Chancellor External Relations
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