NIH News Advisory
National Institute of
Allergy and Infectious Diseases

Thursday, August 16, 2001
Jeff Minerd (301) 402-1663
NIAID Office of Communications

Probing the Puzzle of Asthma

By every measure — hospitalizations, emergency room visits, trips to the doctor's office — the chronic lung disease called asthma is on the rise. Since 1980, asthma rates have increased 75 percent, and the death rate, though low, has doubled. Asthma is now one of the country's most common and costly diseases, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), affecting an estimated 17 million Americans. The reasons for this upsurge remain mysterious.

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) today releases Focus on Asthma, a Web site feature that explains how NIAID-sponsored researchers are looking for ways to better understand, prevent and treat asthma. Below are excerpts from Focus on Asthma, which may be of interest as the school year begins and fall allergies kick in. For more details and background information, visit the NIAID Web site at

To pursue these or other asthma story ideas, please call Jeff Minerd in the NIAID Office of Communications and Public Liaison at (301) 402-1663.

Asthma Counselors: Nationwide Effort Makes a Difference for Inner-City Kids
Asthma counselors are going to work in 23 community-based health organizations across the United States to improve the health of inner-city children with asthma. The counselors, hired with $2.9 million provided by the CDC, will implement a treatment intervention developed and proven effective by NIAID-supported research. This research was carried out by the National Cooperative Inner-City Asthma Study, an NIAID effort launched in 1991 to find out why asthma disproportionately affects inner-city children and what can be done about it.

Cats May Protect Against Asthma
Contrary to popular belief, high levels of cat allergen in the home can sometimes decrease the risk of a child developing asthma, says grantee Thomas A. Platts-Mills, M.D., Ph.D., of the University of Virginia. Apparently, the presence of a cat can alter the immune system in a manner similar to allergy shots, he reports.

Cockroaches + Kids = Asthma
Researchers have known for some time about the connection between cockroach allergen and asthma, especially in inner-city children, but no one knows exactly how or why exposure to these insects leads to asthma. The work of grantee Diane Gold, M.D., of Brigham Women's Hospital, and her colleagues gives us a closer look at this phenomenon.

Researcher Challenges Current Thinking
Everybody's immune system reacts to the allergens that cause asthma, such as ragweed pollen, by producing antibodies against them. However, only a quarter of us produce the allergic antibodies that can lead to asthma; the rest of us somehow manage to suppress or avoid this allergic response, explains Andrea Keane-Myers, Ph.D., a NIAID researcher specializing in asthma and allergic diseases.

"Most scientists are focusing on what 'turns on' the allergic response, but a better question may be what turns it off in the majority of people," she says. "What are some of the 'stop signals' that prevent allergy? If we understood these, we could use that knowledge to make better treatments."

Diesel Exhaust Aggravates Symptoms
Diesel exhaust particles can worsen one's asthma symptoms, and the particles may contribute to the increased prevalence of the disease, according to grantee Andrew Saxon, M.D., of the University of California, Los Angeles.Specialized Cells May be Key to Chronic Asthma

Specialized defensive immune system cells called eosinophils have long been thought to cause the symptoms of late-stage asthma attacks by releasing toxins in the airway, but a new study shows these cells may play an even more fundamental role in allergy and asthma. A clearer understanding of how these cells work could lead to better asthma treatments.

New Technique to Test Therapy Concept
A strategy used to prevent rejection of transplanted organs might also help fight allergy and asthma, according to Calman Prussin, M.D., head of the clinical allergy and immunology unit at NIAID. Dr. Prussin and colleagues plan to test whether allergy shots will work better when combined with a tolerizing drug. Such drugs are currently used to make immune system cells non-reactive, or "tolerant," toward a transplanted organ.

Understanding Regulatory DNA Could Lead to Three-In-One Drug
Scientists have identified a snippet of DNA that regulates three key immune system substances involved in asthma, reports NIAID grantee Richard Locksley, M.D., an investigator at the University of California, San Francisco. Further understanding of how this regulatory DNA works could lead to drugs with a "three-in-one punch," lowering the amount of these substances in the airways and controlling asthma more effectively than do drugs that target only one substance.NIAID is a component of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIAID supports basic and applied research to prevent, diagnose and treat infectious and immune-mediated illnesses, including HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, tuberculosis, malaria, autoimmune disorders, asthma and allergies.

Press releases, fact sheets and other NIAID-related materials are available on the NIAID Web site at