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July 22, 2021

Using Data to Fight Asthma

Picture this: A kid joins an asthma study and donates a blood sample through a new research network called Childhood Asthma in Urban Settings (CAUSE). That sample could travel as far as 3,000 miles to get to BRI. 

Next, BRI researchers use tools that create windows into unexplored worlds — worlds of DNA, RNA and individual cells. They hold clues to some of the biggest questions surrounding asthma: What exactly causes that child’s asthma? And which treatments might work best for them? 

Matt Altman
Matt Altman, MD, MPhil

“Historically, we’ve treated all asthma with steroids, which don’t work well for everyone and can be pretty toxic,” says Matt Altman, MD, MPhil, physician and BRI researcher who focuses on asthma. “Now, we have new therapies becoming available that work really well for some people. And we’re able to collect a whole host of molecular data to try to understand who responds and why they respond, so we can move closer to more personalized treatment.”

Dr. Altman and BRI Research Associate Member Scott Presnell, PhD, are part of a team analyzing data for the CAUSE network, which spans six research centers across America. BRI’s team is using innovative tools and technologies to find meaning and patterns within the huge amounts of data that this network collects.

“We now have the opportunity to use new tools to integrate so many different kinds of data — gathering this much information and this level of detail would have been logistically impossible 20 or 30 years ago,” Dr. Presnell says. “That alone will add a tremendous amount of information about these different types of asthma — and the possibilities of what we could learn are really exciting.”

Improving asthma care for kids in low-income, urban communities

CAUSE aims to improve asthma treatment and care for kids in low-income, urban communities, who have the highest instances of asthma and most severe cases of the disease. The network was launched in April 2021 as part of a long-standing effort from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to improve care for these kids. CAUSE is backed by approximately $70 million in NIH funding over the next seven years. They aim to answer key questions — like why some kids experience asthma exacerbations (also called asthma attacks) after having a virus, while others have them after exposure to allergens.

“We need to understand what a person’s specific triggers are,” Dr. Altman says. “What exactly is their immune system doing that causes them to have an exacerbation, lose lung function or end up in the emergency room?”

Scott Presnell
Scott Presnell, PhD

The research network is gearing up to launch their first study, Prevention of Asthma Exacerbations using Dupilumab in Urban Children and Adolescents (PANDA). In previous studies, the drug dupilumab showed to have few side effects and be highly effective — meaning it helped prevent exacerbations, decline in lung function and reduce some of the worst outcomes — in some children. This study aims to learn more about which kids are likely to respond well to the therapy. 

Partner institutions from Denver to DC will collect samples from about 300 kids from low-income, urban communities with severe asthma. Those samples will be sent to BRI, where the research team will use advanced tools to collect tons of information from these samples.

“The tools we have today allow us to look at individual cells for their gene expression or what proteins they make — and the power of that is tremendous,” Dr. Presnell says. “Now, we can really see the diversity of cell types involved in asthma, which can help us make key advances in our understanding of the disease.”

“Data nerds” with big impact

PANDA is one of many studies that CAUSE has in the works. Others include examining ways to prevent asthma in infants in low-income families who are at high risk, and preventing future asthma exacerbations in kids diagnosed with asthma in these communities.

Researchers are already making progress identifying biomarkers — characteristics of a person’s biology — that give insight into who will respond to what therapy. Having new tools and technologies on their side will bring them even closer to making more personalized and effective treatments a reality.

“We’re all data nerds here and these new tools are so exciting,” Dr. Altman says. “But more so, these studies and biologic questions are so important for kids with asthma, especially those with the most severe forms. It’s amazing to see data coming out of these studies that can ultimately have a big impact on kids' lives.”

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