News Release

By better predicting asthma risk, preventive treatments could bypass disease development

A predictive test could help parents and doctors use interventions to prevent asthma during the first two years of life

Peer-Reviewed Publication

University of Arizona Health Sciences

TUCSON, Arizona -- Two University of Arizona Health Sciences scientists are one step closer to developing a predictive test to assess a baby’s risk for asthma, which would allow parents to take steps to thwart the disease’s development and could guide doctors to prescribe preventive treatments. The research was recently published in Frontiers in Immunobiology.

Anthony Bosco, PhD, is an associate professor of immunobiology and associate research scientist with the Asthma and Airway Disease Research Center, sees opportunity.“The first 1,000 days of life shape how the immune system develops in response to the outside world,” said Anthony Bosco, PhD, associate professor of immunobiology in the UArizona College of Medicine – Tucson and associate research scientist with the Asthma and Airway Disease Research Center. “There’s a window of opportunity to go in there with interventions that can strengthen the immune system and reduce the risk of asthma.”

Asthma is an inflammatory disorder in which the airways narrow as they become inflamed, making it difficult to breathe.

Dr. Bosco and James Read, a data scientist with the Department of Immunobiology and the Asthma and Airway Disease Research Center, studied 50 babies at high risk for asthma and found that those who went on to develop asthma exhibited an exaggerated inflammatory response after being exposed to certain pathogenic, or disease-causing, bacteria.

Investigators studied the unusually intense immune response and identified a likely driver: a network controlled by a gene called Interferon Regulatory Factor 1 or IRF1.

“The internet is a bunch of information that’s connected through web links. Gene networks work in much the same way,” Dr. Bosco said. “If gene A interacts with gene B, we connect it with a link, constructing a ‘wiring diagram’ of hundreds of genes that control the immune response.”

The researchers saw that the “wiring” of the IRF1 gene network in children who develop asthma is different than in children who do not develop asthma.

They believe that conditioning the body to pathogenic bacteria at an early age could “reprogram” the immune systems in asthma-prone children to respond more appropriately to asthma-attack triggers, such as fungi, dust mites and viral infections.

“Our research suggests you can minimize asthma risk by treating the immune system in a way that avoids this excessive inflammatory response,” Dr. Bosco said. “Our long-term goal is to roll out a predictive test at scale, start testing babies to predict their risk, and put them on therapies that promote a healthy immune system.”

The investigators believe training a baby’s immune system through exposure to certain microbes may be the key to reducing their risk of developing asthma. They are hopeful that at-risk babies can overcome their genetic predisposition to asthma through controlled exposure to bacterial extracts that have been weakened to make them safe to administer to babies and young children.

“If your exposure to bacteria happens early on and you develop a healthy microbiome, the way your immune system responds to pathogens will be more fine-tuned,” Dr. Bosco said. The microbiome is the community of bacteria and other microbes that take up residence in the body, where they mostly live in symbiosis.

The investigators believe they can potentially bypass the need for lifelong asthma medications by giving at-risk children microbial products that can train the immune system. Microbial products are already being studied for their ability to reduce asthma risk, including at the Asthma and Airways Disease Research Center, where Fernando Martinez, MD, is principal investigator of the ORBEX trial to measure the efficacy of bacterial extracts in preventing asthma-like symptoms.

In addition to using microbial products, Read says a test revealing babies’ faulty genetic wiring can motivate parents to make healthier choices for their children.

“If parents are informed that their child is more likely to have asthma, they can make changes, like monitoring time outside during certain periods of the year, such as when outdoor airborne fungal spore concentrations are at their highest levels in spring,” Read said. “Our work is moving away from the reactive, where you wait until a disease is present and treat it, to an earlier timepoint where we can take actions to reduce risk and lower disease burden.”

Reporters and editors: Please note that the University of Arizona Health Sciences is separately recognized from the University of Arizona, similar to other academic health centers across the country. The preferred first reference is University of Arizona Health Sciences; the preferred second reference is UArizona Health Sciences

About the University of Arizona Health Sciences
Located on campuses in Tucson, Phoenix and Gilbert, Arizona, the University of Arizona Health Sciences is one of the top-ranked academic medical centers in the southwestern United States. UArizona Health Sciences includes the College of Medicine – Phoenix, College of Medicine – Tucson, College of Nursing, Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, R. Ken Coit College of Pharmacy, and Health Sciences Global and Online. In addition, 16 UArizona Health Sciences centers and programs focus on cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, pain and addiction, and respiratory diseases; biomedical informatics, health technology innovation and simulation training; and health disparities, precision health care and treatments, and pandemic preparedness. A leader in next-generation education, research, clinical care and public outreach, UArizona Health Sciences employs nearly 5,000 people, has approximately 4,000 students and 900 faculty members, and garners more than $220 million in research grants and contracts annually. For more information: (Follow us: Facebook | Twitter | YouTube | LinkedIn | Instagram).

About the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson
The University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson is shaping the future of medicine through state-of-the-art medical education programs, groundbreaking research and advancements in patient care in Arizona and beyond. Founded in 1967, the college boasts more than 50 years of innovation, ranking among the top medical schools in the nation for research and primary care. Through the university's partnership with Banner Health, one of the largest nonprofit health-care systems in the country, the college is leading the way in academic medicine. For more information: (Follow us: Facebook | Twitter | LinkedIn | Instagram).


Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.