Air Pollution Could Start Asthma Through DNA

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A study by UC Berkeley and Stanford University researchers found that air pollution modifies the gene structure of cells that fight asthma and increases the severity of the disease, revealing a more complex relationship between pollution and asthma than previously thought.

The study, published Monday in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, is one of the first to find a link between exposure to pollutants, regulatory T cell impairment, genetic change and asthma symptoms, going beyond previous studies that investigated short-term causes for asthma.

"I think that the study reveals very important findings about how there are differences in asthmatics that we can detect on a molecular level that we can help identify," said Rachel Miller, associate professor of medicine and environmental health sciences at Columbia University.

The researchers used subjects from a study by Ira Tager, professor of epidemiology in UC Berkeley's School of Public Health and principal investigator on the study, which he began 10 years ago on exposure to pollution in children from Fresno, Calif.

Kari Nadeau, lead author of the study and assistant professor in immunology and allergy at Stanford, drew blood from 71 of Tager's subjects last year. Nadeau studied another 30 children from Fresno who did not have asthma and another 80 subjects from Palo Alto, Calif. - 40 with asthma and 40 without asthma. These cities were chosen because Fresno is the second most polluted city in the nation, while Palo Alto has very little air pollution.

The results showed that exposure to pollution can cause a change in DNA that impairs regulatory T cells, which help fight off asthma. The suppression of the regulatory T cells in turn increases the severity of the asthma.

The researchers now plan to expand their sample of subjects for a new study to test the implications of the findings, such as, if other air pollutants that affect asthma exist, if the modification is reversible and if the gene is inherited.

"The genetical background of the kids are important, but what's even more important is the environmental pollutants," said Shuk-mei Ho, chair of the Department of Environmental Health at the University of Cincinnati.

Nadeau and Tager agree that the most important development that can come from the study is not therapeutic rather preventative.

"These children are born innocently in different areas," Nadeau said. "They can't help that they are born in a zip code that has bad pollution, so why not try to effect policy changes to try to affect standards of cars and prevent these exposures from happening in the first place?"


Contact Victoria Pardini at [email protected]

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