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UA research may help asthma sufferers

Citizen Staff Writer



University of Arizona scientists are using research methods now improving crop yields to help discover breath-saving asthma treatments.

UA BIO5 Institute researchers Rod Wing and Fernando Martinez are collaborating to combine their world-leading expertise in plant genome sequencing and respiratory disease study to identify undiscovered genetic variants present in asthmatics.

By sequencing a person’s DNA, researchers will be able to determine which drugs can best treat their particular type of asthma, said Martinez, BIO5′s interim director and Arizona Respiratory Center director.

“The objective is to personalize treatment for asthma,” he said. “We are going to target the genes that are important to you.”

Wing, director of the Arizona Genomics Institute, for years has been using cutting-edge instruments to sequence genetic material in rice and other plants.

His research includes working with Chinese scientists to improve rice yields and to make West African cultivated rice more drought-tolerant to feed starving people.

“The main focus is on rice in our lab,” Wing said. “We’ve never done asthma before.”

Thirty to 40 researchers work in Wing’s 4,600-square-foot lab in BIO5, 1657 E. Helen St.

A Roche 454 genome sequencer and an Illumina Genome Analyzer II are used to quickly sequence rice’s genomic recipe, he said.

“We can screen thousands of genes at one time rather than just a handful,” Wing said.

The research team’s expertise in plants is now being applied to DNA from human tissue and blood, he said.

Martinez said the collaborative environment at BIO5, which sees researchers from a variety of scientific disciplines working in close proximity, helped Wing and Martinez team up for the asthma research.

Martinez hopes the project and others help BIO5 develop into the asthma genomic research center of the world.

“There is a large population of asthmatics in Tucson and Arizona,” Wing said.

More than 600,000 Arizonans are affected by asthma, and each year about 67 people in the state die unnecessarily from the disorder, according to the Arizona Asthma Coalition, a Scottsdale-based nonprofit organization.

A 2007 report showed that 14 percent of Arizona adults have the condition compared with 13.1 percent of U.S. adults.

The high number of asthma cases here is helping the research effort, Martinez said.

More than 5,000 frozen tissue and blood samples from asthmatics are available for genetic testing, he said. Work has begun on analyzing the DNA for a full set of genetic variants that could be targeted with new drug therapies.

“We know what the common variants are. We are looking for rare variants,” Martinez said. “We have 50 to 100 candidate genes identified, and there may be thousands we don’t know of.”

Candidate genes are markers associated with asthma.

Researchers will then work to develop new therapeutic tools to deal with the asthma-related genes, Martinez said.

It will likely take three to five years to finish sequencing the asthma genes, Wing said.

And it could take an additional five to 10 years to produce and test for safety and effectiveness new drugs that could offer personalized treatments for the disease, Martinez said.

The two-year study is funded by a $500,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health, he said. He expects more money for the project.

“This is seed money,” Martinez said. “We’re just getting started.”

‘The objective is to personalize treatment for asthma. We are going to target the genes that are important to you.’

Fernando Martinez,

BIO5 interim director and Arizona Respiratory Center director


Asthma is an inflammatory condition of the lungs that makes it difficult to breathe. Asthma is chronic, meaning that inflammation is always present, even when there are no noticeable symptoms.

When provoked by a trigger, the inflammation worsens and the insides of the airways produce extra mucus, swell even more, and the muscles that wrap around the airways may tighten.

The changes produce airway obstruction, chest tightness, coughing and wheezing that can lead to asthma attacks. If severe, the symptoms can cause severe shortness of breath and low levels of oxygen in the blood.

Asthma is characterized by excessive sensitivity of the lungs to various stimuli. Triggers range from viral infections to allergies, to irritating gases and particles in the air.

Each person reacts differently to the factors that may trigger asthma, including:

• respiratory infections and colds

• cigarette smoke

• allergens such as pollen, mold, animal dander, feathers, dust, food and cockroaches

• exercise

• exposure to cold air or sudden temperature changes

• odors and fumes

• excitement or stress

Source: American Lung Association

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