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Researchers Studying How Genes Affect Patients’ Responses to Asthma Treatment

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center is one of eight centers nationwide involved in a new study of how patients’ genes affect the way they respond to asthma medications. Researchers are recruiting local participants with mild to moderate asthma for the study.

The research will focus on salmeterol, a long-acting medication that widens the air passages to the lungs. Salmeterol is a component of the asthma medication Advair. The new study is based on earlier research showing that patients with a certain genetic makeup actually do worse when they are treated regularly with albuterol, than without the treatment. Albuterol, the most commonly used fast-acting asthma medication, is similar to salmeterol but does not work as long.

“The research will likely lead to genetic tests to determine whether a specific patient is likely to benefit from, or should avoid some asthma medications,” said Stephen P. Peters, M.D., Ph.D, professor of medicine and pediatrics, in the section on pulmonary, critical care, allergy and immunologic diseases at Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

The study is being conducted by an eight-center research network called the Asthma Clinical Research Network (ACRN), which is supported by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health. Last year, the ACRN found that individuals with one form of a particular gene had more problems while being treated with albuterol than individuals with another form of the gene. The participants with the at-risk gene actually did better when treated with inactive drug (placebo) than when they were treated regularly with albuterol.

Out of the 15 million Americans who suffer from asthma, about 16 percent, or more than 2 million people, have the genetic variant associated with a poor response to the treatment. The variant is more common in certain ethnic groups, such as African-Americans.

“This research brings up interesting questions as to how a person’s genetic makeup influences the outcome of treatment methods,” said Peters, who is leading the local study. “What we learn has important implications for patients and for physicians who treat asthma.”

Understanding how genetic variations impact drug responsiveness is a part of an emerging science known as pharmacogenetics. It offers promise in making drugs more specific for certain patients, which will make them more powerful and less apt to produce undesirable side effects, said Peters, who is a faculty member of the Center for Human Genomics at Wake Forest University.

Researchers at the center, including co-directors Deborah Meyers, Ph.D., and Eugene Bleecker, M.D., are national leaders in studying variations in a number of genes that are associated with the risk of developing asthma.

“Studying how genetic variations affect the response to asthma medications is a natural next step that is now an important priority in the center,” said Peters. “Only a very few sites in this country have similar capabilities.”

The Medical Center has been awarded $4.3 million to conduct the salmeterol and several others during the next five years. The study is currently enrolling participants with mild to moderate asthma who should be taking daily asthma medication. Study patients receive study-related medical care and medications free of charge as well as a payment for their time. Enrolled patients donate a small volume of blood which will enable researchers to examine their genotype. Their responses to asthma medications will be evaluated over a 40-week period.

The study will take approximately one year to conduct and another year for the data to be evaluated and reported.

People interested in enrolling should call 336-713-8559 to learn more.

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Media Contacts: Karen Richardson, krchrdsn@wfubmc.edu; Shannon Koontz, shkoontz@wfubmc.edu; at 336-716-4587

About Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center: Wake Forest Baptist is an academic health system comprised of North Carolina Baptist Hospital and Wake Forest University Health Sciences, which operates the university’s School of Medicine. The system comprises 1,282 acute care, psychiatric, rehabilitation and long-term care beds and is consistently ranked as one of “America’s Best Hospitals” by U.S. News & World Report.

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