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Asthma stars align to form STELAR

Press release issued: 1 March 2005

Some of the UK's leading asthma researchers join forces this month in a co-ordinated attempt to investigate the causes of Britain's most common long-term childhood condition.

Some of the UK’s leading asthma researchers join forces this month in a co-ordinated attempt to investigate the causes of Britain’s most common long-term childhood condition.

The newly-formed Study Team for Early Life Asthma Research (STELAR) network draws together scientists from Bristol, London, Manchester, Aberdeen, Southampton, Ashford and the Isle of Wight.

Asthma UK are now funding the first STELAR project with £124,000 grant over three years to Dr John Henderson from the Children of the 90s study at the University of Bristol.

Philippa Major, Assistant Director, Research at Asthma UK said: “Asthma is a complex condition that often starts in childhood, brought on by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. There appears to be increasing evidence suggesting that certain events, which happen to the baby in the womb or soon after birth will often determine whether that child will go on to develop asthma.

“Because of this Asthma UK has decided to prioritise research on the influence of early life events in the development of asthma.”

Research is complex because there are so many variations of asthma, and because there are so many potential causes – such as the mother’s diet, use of some medications, or type of housing, each acting together. This new study will help identify how the development of asthma in early life can be prevented.

Dr Henderson said: “One of the best ways of understanding a complex condition like asthma is to follow a group of children for many years to investigate what they are exposed to, which of them develop asthma and what type of asthma they have.

“Asthma UK has funded a number of these birth cohort studies, which have already provided evidence of different possible mechanisms for the onset of asthma. This network aims to build on that research by bringing together the UK groups that have studied birth cohorts in a unique collaboration.”

The project’s first step will be to set up an Asthma Phenobank - a new system for classifying variations in asthma according to onset and history.   The phenobank will be based on the experiences of 14,000 families who have been taking part in the Children of the 90s study at the University of Bristol.

Scientists will then study these variations in asthma, looking for common events and, they hope, throwing up new theories, which can then be examined in more detail with the help of the other birth cohorts.

The range of exposures that will be examined include:

  • Prenatal factors maternal health, nutrition during pregnancy, drugs taken during pregnancy, mother’s smoking history;
  • Perinatal factorssuch as gestation, birth weight, neonatal problems, feeding history;
  • Early childhood exposures (home environment – damp, moulds, crowding, environmental tobacco smoke, socio-economic conditions, childhood nutrition, pet ownership, place of residence)
  • Other health outcomes, including symptoms in early childhood, features of other allergic disorders, visits to GPs and /hospital and medication use.

Dr Henderson added: “Asthma is a complex disease and it is likely that a large number of genes are involved, but the observed rise in asthma over the last few decades in many westernised countries can’t be explained by genetic changes in the population.

“A great deal of research interest has focused on the search for environmental exposures that are associated with the development of asthma but, despite this activity, the emergence of a single modifiable factor that is likely to have a major impact on asthma prevalence has yet to occur.

“To disentangle all the complexities requires access to a detailed source of information on asthma patients built up over a number of years, and including a diverse range of environmental factors, preferably commenced before birth. We need enough people taking part to allow us to analyse all the significant interactions.  This proposal provides these possibilities.’

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