Asthma gene discovered

An Oxford University study has found a gene which predisposes people to asthma and atopy, a form of hypersensitivity which causes allergies. This discovery, published on Sunday [18 May] online in nature genetics, has the potential to lead to better classification of asthma and to new treatments.

Asthma affects one child in seven in the UK and there are 155 million cases of the disease in the world today. Asthma and allergies run strongly in families and have a genetic basis.

Funded by the Wellcome Trust and the National Asthma Campaign, the study to locate the gene took six years and the work of more than 20 doctors and scientists. The discovery is the latest in a series of genes causing susceptibility to asthma and allergic disease that have been identified by Dr Miriam Moffatt and Professor William Cookson and their team in the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics in Oxford.

The newly-found asthma gene, called PHF11, comes from chromosome 13 which has been known to contain an asthma gene for many years, but until now the gene itself had been undiscovered. The genetic variants predisposing to disease are most common in adults with severe asthma, but the gene may also be involved in milder forms of asthma and allergic childhood eczema.

The gene appears to regulate the blood B cells that produce Immunoglobulin E, the allergic antibody. Although new treatments take years to develop, the gene potentially provides a target for drugs that could turn off Immunoglobulin E and prevent allergic disease.

Professor William Cookson, Director of the Asthma Genetics Group at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics at the University of Oxford, said: ’’Finding this gene adds a new dimension to understanding asthma and allergic diseases, but the understanding is still incomplete.

’’There are perhaps 10 genes that have a significant effect on a person?s susceptibility to asthma, and more with minor effects, or effects that are only important in certain circumstances. As a result of the work of many different groups internationally, about half of these genes have already been identified. It is very likely that all the important genes will be found in the next three years. Even without knowing all the genes involved in asthma, our ideas about the causes of the disease are changing and we are seeing new ways to treat the illness. The challenge of translating genetic findings into new treatments is, however, not trivial and will not be accomplished overnight.

’’This type of genetic research is expensive and laborious and takes years of work. It is gratifying that we have shown that groups with charitable funding can compete with industry. This is due to the generosity of the charities involved, but also to the dedication of individual scientists who are the authors on the paper.’’

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