The first Tuesday in April is recognized as World Asthma Day. This year, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) joined with public health officials, health organizations, and patient groups around the world to recognize World Asthma Day.
As NIH’s leading supporters of asthma research, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) all renewed their commitment to advancing studies that will help improve asthma prevention, diagnosis, and management. Their diverse programs provide a critical foundation for improving outcomes for patients with asthma. Each of the institutes focuses on a fundamentally different aspect of asthma, and they work closely together to coordinate their research programs. Their goal is to make this year’s theme, You Can Control Your Asthma, not just a slogan but a reality.
Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disorder of the airways, affecting more than 17 million American adults and 7 million children under 18 years of age. Asthma disproportionately affects minorities, people with lower incomes, females, and children. The disorder is characterized by mild to life-threatening episodes of airway narrowing and obstruction, causing wheezing, coughing, chest tightness and shortness of breath. Asthma has no cure, but daily preventive treatment can enable individuals to manage their symptoms and lead active lives.
As the lead NIH institute focusing on how environmental factors impact human health, NIEHS is working to understand how exposures to environmental agents trigger diseases such as asthma, and how we can prevent, diagnose and treat these diseases.
In addition to identifying environmental factors contributing to asthma, NIEHS is developing and testing new technologies to help determine environmental triggers and reduce asthma symptoms. PIPER, or the Pre-toddler Inhalable Particulate Environmental Robotic sampler, is a robot developed by NIEHS grantees capable of mimicking children’s floor activities while collecting better estimates of young children’s exposure to indoor air pollutants, such as particulate matter, pesticides, allergens, endotoxins and airborne fungi. PIPER is being used as part of a study that will compare measurements of particulates obtained by PIPER with those from standard adult height monitoring stations and examine their association with asthma symptoms.
NIEHS is also supporting research to find improved asthma interventions. Through collaborative programs such as the Head-off Environmental Asthma in Louisiana (HEAL) Project, implemented in New Orleans soon after Hurricane Katrina, we are learning about the important role that comprehensive home-front interventions can have on children with asthma.
NIEHS researchers continue to learn more about genetic susceptibility to asthma, by working closely with other NIH-funded researchers and international collaborators to conduct genome-wide association studies. The studies are aimed at identifying genetic risk factors and their interactions with environmental risk factors, in order to characterize how they may influence susceptibility to the disease.
Also, work being done by the Centers for Children’s Environmental Health, supported by NIEHS and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is helping us better understand and treat asthma. For example, research from one of the centers has shown that children living close to major roadways in Southern California have a higher risk of asthma. Additionally, research conducted at the NIEHS Clinical Research Unit in Research Triangle Park, N.C., is leading to a greater knowledge about the causes of asthma, and how to prevent and treat diseases that are clearly influenced by the environment.
The NHLBI supports a broad asthma research program that spans basic research, genomics, proteomics, epidemiology, clinical trials and demonstration projects. This support has advanced our understanding of the mechanisms of asthma and improved patient care. For example, the NHLBI-funded Asthma Clinical Research Network recently demonstrated that tiotropium bromide, an anticholinergic drug that helps reduce airway contraction, was an effective add-on therapy to inhaled corticosteroids for adults with poorly controlled asthma.