Pioneering Irish study on asthma launched

First of its kind in the world
  • Deborah Condon

A new Irish study aims to identify the underlying genetic factors that are common among people with asthma. This could lead to more accurate diagnoses and more personalised treatments for patients.

Ireland currently has the fourth highest prevalence of asthma in the world - an estimated 470,000 people are affected. The condition accounts for around 20,000 Emergency Department (ED) attendances and 5,000 hospital admissions every year here.

The study, the first of its kind in the world, aims to identify links that can help predict disease severity and help to develop more personalised treatment pathways. It will also look at different sub-types of asthma, such as asthma-COPD overlap (ACO).

These chronic lung conditions can display similar clinical characteristics, but may have different underlying causes, making them difficult to predict or treat.

The study has been launched by Genomics Medicine Ireland in collaboration with St Vincent's University Hospital and University College Dublin.

According to one of the lead researchers, Dr Marcus Butler, a consultant in respiratory medicine at St Vincent's University Hospital, asthma is a much more complicated condition than many people realise.

"It can present itself in an as-of-yet undefined number of distinct diseases that all fall under the generic umbrella term of ‘asthma'. The potential of genomics is that, in future, we could unambiguously identify and treat the many variants of asthma on a person-to-person basis, avoiding unnecessary patient morbidity from imprecise diagnosis and side-effects of futile therapy, in addition to saving a significant amount of time, money and effort in the process," he explained.

Meanwhile, according to lead researcher, Dr Eleanor Dunican, who is also a consultant in respiratory medicine at St Vincent's, asthma can be difficult to treat accurately.

"Many patients with asthma can share or display identical clinical characteristics or symptoms - shortness of breath, cough, wheeziness, chest tightness etc... What's more, you can either develop the condition as a child or develop it in adulthood and have the condition triggered by differing factors including viral infections, allergen exposure, exercise, environmental irritants and so on.

"It is this range of possibilities that makes asthma and its related conditions difficult to treat accurately using traditional medicines and treatments. The research we are undertaking aims to clarify all this uncertainty and enable medical professionals to make more accurate, definitive diagnoses and offer similarly precise prognoses and treatments," she noted.

The study was welcomed by the Asthma Society of Ireland. According to its CEO, Sarah O'Connor, the figures surrounding asthma in this country are ‘stark' and present a major challenge to the healthcare system.

"Every 26 minutes, someone in Ireland visits an ED with asthma and one Irish person dies every week as a result of the condition - 90% of these deaths are preventable.

"There are good preventative and remedial measures available, but the complexity and broad scope of the disease make it difficult to treat accurately. Genomics can potentially provide a definitive assessment of the type of asthma a patient has, making treatment much more accurate and effective," she commented.

Anyone with asthma or ACO who is already attending St Vincent's University Hospital, and who is interested in taking part in this study, should ask their consultant for more information.

*Pictured is consultant in respiratory medicine, Dr Eleanor Dunican, consultant in respiratory medicine, Dr Marcus Butler, Asthma Society CEO, Sarah O'Connor and Lorna Murphy of Genomics Medicine Ireland


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