Understanding lung damage due to childhood asthma could hold the clues to preventing respiratory disease later in life

Dr. Padmaja Subbarao, Staff Respirologist and Scientist in Physiology and Experimental Medicine, leads a research study investigating the effects of genes and the environment on lung health that will receive $1.9 million in funding over the next five years from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). With nearly one in three Canadians diagnosed with asthma in their lifetime, Subbarao and her colleagues are investigating the root causes of a chronic condition that affects a vast portion of the population. While many children outgrow the symptoms of asthma, lasting damage to their lung function could be an early marker of later respiratory disease such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD).

This funding comes as part of an announcement made today by The Honourable Jane Philpott, Minister of Health, in which eight research studies have been funded with a total of $16 million over five years as part of CIHR’s signature initiative on Environments and Health. These studies represent an interdisciplinary approach to finding ways to prevent or treat chronic conditions by examining how physical, social and environmental health factors intersect.

“We, along with other scientists, believe that the air we breathe, the things we eat and the colds we get can cause injury to the lungs of infants and children. These injuries over time can cause breathing problems such as asthma. Understanding what our lungs are telling us and the impact of early damage could allow us to identify early risk factors for respiratory or cardiovascular disease,” says Subbarao. “We believe we can discover what things each person can do to improve their lungs and prevent them from getting chronic breathing problems, making Canada the healthiest place to live.”

The team, led by Subbarao, brings together researchers from Environment Canada, McMaster University, Queen’s University and the University of Toronto, further demonstrating the interdisciplinary approach to this work. The study will draw data from the Canadian Healthy Infant Longitudinal Development (CHILD) Study, of which Subbarao is the Co-Director. With over 3,500 Canadian children participating, the CHILD study is one of the largest in the world examining the relationship between genes and the environment, and how they influence allergies and chronic conditions. Over 500,000 questionnaires and over 600,000 biological samples have been collected since 2008, making CHILD a rich source of data for many researchers. This study has been made possible by funding from CIHR and AllerGen, the Allergy, Genes and Environment Network.

These families, with children who have been followed since infancy, have answered countless questions about what they eat, breathe and how often they get sick, and have also done breathing tests that measure how well their lungs are functioning. When combined with new technologies that provide a deeper understanding of the genome, epigenome, microbiome and metabolome, this research has the potential to unlock new awareness of the causes of chronic diseases.

“This research funding will enable researchers to use these new technologies to better understand the complex interactions that cause chronic disease, and ultimately help us to identify better ways to prevent and treat chronic disease conditions,” says Dr. Philip Sherman, Scientific Director, CIHR Institute of Nutrition, Metabolism and Diabetes, and Senior Scientist and Staff Gastroenterologist at SickKids.

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