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Goal of Asthma Studies is to Find More Effective Treatments

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – From studying new injected medications to learning about the effects of patients’ genes, researchers at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center and colleagues are conducting studies of mild, moderate and severe asthma to improve treatments for the disease.

The studies are evaluating new treatments as well as working to understand why people with severe asthma don’t respond better to therapy. While fewer than 10 percent of asthma patients have severe disease, they are most at risk for hospitalizations, disability or dying from the disease.

“We want to understand what is wrong in patients with severe asthma and apply what we learn to help them,” said Wendy Moore, M.D., a specialist in pulmonary medicine.

Researchers at Wake Forest, led by Eugene Bleecker, M.D., are part of an eight-center group, the Severe Asthma Research Program, funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. About 750 patients across the country are in the severe asthma study – 35 percent of them through Wake Forest Baptist.

Scientists believe some patients with severe asthma don’t respond well to steroid drugs, the most common treatment, and that others may need higher doses than are commonly given.

“Understanding this has a lot of implications for treatment,” said Moore. “They are being treated by current guidelines but still aren’t better. Either the guidelines are wrong or it’s the wrong therapy for those patients. That’s why we’re doing this research – to find answers.”

The centers are collecting information from blood and breathing tests, as well as about patients’ genes. One goal is to understand how patients with severe asthma differ from people with milder forms of the disease and why therapies that are effective for some patients don’t work for others.

“The long-term goal is to develop new ways to evaluate a patient’s asthma to allow us to design individualized therapy for that patient based on the type of inflammation in their lungs or the genes they have,” said Moore. “We are a long way from being there, but this research is a start.”

In a recent article in Journal of Allergy & Clinical Immunology, Moore said that new non-invasive methods for measuring airway inflammation – such as measuring levels of nitric oxide, a gas in the breath we exhale – may one day help doctors better treat the disease.

“We want to use science to guide our therapy for these patients,” said Moore.

In addition to the study of severe asthma, Wake Forest Baptist is one of eight centers in the country, and the only one in the South, that is part of the Asthma Clinical Research Network (ACRN), which evaluates new treatments for asthma.

“We are trying to answer important questions about asthma, to evaluate new and existing therapies and to get the results out quickly so patients can benefit,” said Stephen Peters, M.D., Ph.D., research director and professor of pulmonary and critical care medicine.

One ACRN project may lead to genetic tests to determine whether specific patients would likely benefit from, or should avoid, certain medications based on their genes.

The studies are conducted by Wake Forest’s Center for Human Genomics, which was established in June 2000. Its primary purpose is to investigate genetic mechanisms in the development and progression of complex human diseases, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, prostate cancer and pulmonary diseases such as allergies and asthma.

In the United States, an estimated 20 million people have asthma and nearly 5,000 people die each year with asthma as the underlying cause.

The study center is at 2132 Cloverdale Avenue, one block west of the Medical Center. For more information about participating in the asthma studies, call 336-713-8550. Currently, studies are underway for patients with mild, moderate and severe asthma.

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

Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center 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. U.S. News & World Report ranks Wake Forest University School of Medicine 30th in primary care, 41st in research and 14th in geriatrics training among the nation's medical schools. It ranks 32nd in research funding by the National Institutes of Health. Almost 150 members of the medical school faculty are listed in Best Doctors in America.


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