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Tackling asthma with new study

4 May 2004 is World Asthma Day. Asthma, hayfever, eczema and associated allergies are among the most common chronic diseases in the developed world. It has been estimated that up to 50% of people in western societies suffer from these conditions, and in Australia alone, health care costs for asthma alone exceed $700 million each year.

Genetic factors are important in the development of asthma and allergy, and now, a major new research study is being conducted to identify the genes responsible. QIMR has commenced genetic studies on a collection of 500 families with asthma. Later this year, scientists will start testing the over 2,000 blood samples.

“We will be looking at a new gene that we suspect to be a risk factor, based on our earlier work in these families. We will also test a number of other genes recently reported in overseas studies to be involved in asthma risk, such as HF11, CTLA4 and ADAM33,” said QIMR genetic epidemiologist, Dr David Duffy.

Asthma seems to run strongly within families, but the evidence to date suggests this is due to many different genes acting together. The effect of any one gene is usually not very large. “Since we still don’t really understand the basic causes for asthma, even finding a gene of small effect will be a helpful pointer to where to look next,” said David.

QIMR scientists have also analysed hundreds of people for lung function and allergy testing, including those for common allergens such as house dust mites, grasses, cockroaches, cats, egg white, and dogs. Already QIMR scientists have found that indoor allergens – such as house dust mites – are much more likely to trigger an asthma attack than external allergens such as grasses and pollen.

Once the genes have been identified and scientists understand more about how genes and environment interact to cause these conditions, new tools and medicines for effective diagnosis and management can be developed.