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Headlines Published on 03 February 2004

Title New network to help Europeans breathe easy

Hundreds of substances can trigger allergic reactions and asthma attacks, but people react to different allergens for different reasons. Understanding why more and more people are affected by these conditions is a major field of pan-European research.

Allergies affect Europeans indoors and outdoors © Source: PhotoDisc
Allergies affect Europeans indoors and outdoors

© Source: PhotoDisc
Common respiratory allergies, such as hay fever and asthma, are on the increase worldwide. In Western Europe alone, asthma cases are reported to have doubled in ten years. Major international studies on these diseases in children have found huge disparities in reported cases in different European centres, the reasons for which remain unclear.

A Europe-wide consortium of research organisations – calling itself the Global Allergy and Asthma European Network (GA²LEN) – plans to shed light on this major health problem. Among the 25 partners making up this EU-backed ‘network of excellence’ are members of the European Academy of Allergology and Clinical Immunology (EAACI) and a European patients’ organisation, EFA. By banding together under the European Union’s umbrella research programme – the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) – they aim to boost the overall quality and relevance of research into these complex diseases, while lessening the burden of allergy and asthma on Europe’s citizens, and its health systems.

Scientists working under earlier European research schemes, such as the ‘Quality of Life’ programme, have made significant contributions to understanding the causes – and developing ways to manage – these conditions. EU initiatives have led to improved collaboration within Europe, but there is still a lack of permanent structures and relatively poor links between disciplines. This was one of the driving forces behind the creation of FP6’s networks of excellence and integrated projects.

Professor Peter Burney, head of the Department of Public Health at King’s College London (UK), believes that collaboration is vital to tackling such widespread health problems. “Networks of excellence are a huge advantage, particularly in the epidemiology of such diseases as allergy and asthma,” he noted. The network offers the necessary scope and variation to conduct such “observation-based” research.

“Studying these diseases across Europe gives us an incredible range of resources, and can also spread the large load – both the work to be done and the costs involved,” Burney added. On 12 February, he will be speaking more about the epidemiology of these ailments at GA²LEN’s launch event in Brussels, ‘Spreading Excellence in Allergy and Asthma’, in the presence of Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin.

Knowing the knowns
The consortium will bring together epidemiological, basic and clinical researchers to investigate allergy and asthma across their lifecycles, including the relationship between genetic and environmental factors in early life, how early sensitivity translates into disease, and how this disease persists. This will help to develop what the team call novel biomarkers, treatments and preventive strategies.

The network is keen to built up a permanent and durable structure that will be financially independent after EU support ends in five year’s time. This is an important aspect for the Commission, which is close to concluding negotiations for a €14.3 million contribution to the project – with the consortium putting up an equivalent amount.

Clearly, there are a lot of ‘unkown knowns’ in this field of study, as confirmed by the network’s coordinator Professor Paul van Cauwenberge, dean of the Medical Faculty at Ghent University (BE). “We know a lot but the information is fragmented; one team finds this data and another finds something else,” he said, adding that the field suffers from a lack of integration – intellectually and in practice – which makes a multifaceted study such as theirs so valuable. “No single institute could do this, especially the gene environment part of it.”

What is known about allergies is they are over-reactions of the immune system to a substance it understands to be ‘foreign’. The environment and outdoor air pollution are believed to aggravate, possibly even cause, respiratory allergies and diseases. Indeed, they are more prevalent in big cities than rural areas, and workers exposed to potential triggers – such as fumes and dust – are more susceptible. Yet the prevalence of these conditions does not correlate precisely with air pollution levels in different cities.

Being indoors also seems to offer no respite for sufferers. For example, warm homes with soft furnishings and carpeting tend to have high levels of allergens, such as pet hair, dust mites, damp and smoke from tobacco. Another area under scrutiny is overly hygienic homes: people brought up in these environments are more allergy-prone in later life than those exposed to dirt, animals, and other children. Early exposure to certain bacteria may actually protect people against allergies.

Indeed, there are many gaps in the data and much work still to be done, van Cauwenberge concedes. “Our job is not only scientific, but also to spread excellence and information on this topic: we need to promote awareness at the academic and clinical level, as well as among the general public, which is a major task.”

Source:  EU sources

Research Contacts page

More information:

  • Food quality and safety (FP6)
  • First call results (FP6)
  • Ghent University (Faculty of Medicine)
  • King’s College London (Dept. of Public Health Sciences)
  • EFA (European Federation of Allergy and Airways Diseases Patients' Associations)

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