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Headlines Published on 08 May 2006

Title Gabriel – guardian angel of asthma research

German and English scientists will lead a Europe-wide study into the role of genetics and the environment in the development asthma. Previous investigations have fallen short of proving cause-effect due to the complexity of human genetics and varying lifestyles. But the EU-funded GABRIEL study has pooled the very best in the field from all over Europe and can draw on the latest genomic and environmental data and approaches.

Evidence that exposure to microbes in rural farming environments results in a lower incidence of asthma is going to be investigated by GABRIEL. © PhotoDisc
Evidence that exposure to microbes in rural farming environments results in a lower incidence of asthma is going to be investigated by GABRIEL.
© PhotoDisc
Imperial College London and Munich University are leading an €11 million investigation into how genetics and the environment influence the development of asthma in Europe. The Sixth Framework Programme-funded project GABRIEL involves over 150 scientists from 14 European countries, using the latest research across a variety of disciplines, including genetics, epidemiology and immunology, to identify key factors in the development of asthma.

Asthma is the major chronic childhood illness in Europe costing over €3 billion a year. Although effective therapies of mild asthma exist, the 10% of children with severe cases account for 60% of this expense. Even when treatment is effective, it is not able to cure the disease, say the scientists.

Asthma is due to a combination of genetic and environmental effects. It runs strongly in families. It was rare a hundred years ago, but is increasingly common in developed societies across the world. Meanwhile, living in a rural environment is believed to protect against the disease.

“The hope is that we in GABRIEL will be able to identify both risk and protective factors, with the long-term aim of preventing the illness,” noted Professor Bill Cookson of Imperial College London, coordinator of the study.

His co-leader Professor Erika von Mutius of Munich University explained that, traditionally, it has been hard to analyse all the genetic and environmental information. “But the latest developments in areas, such as genomics and bioinformatics, now allow us to make sense of huge and complicated datasets.”

Testing hygiene hypothesis
As well as looking at genetic and environmental interactions, GABRIEL will study the molecular basis for environmental factors which can increase the risk of industrial asthma, identify the agents which protect strongly against asthma in rural and farming communities and use genetics, genomics and proteomics to discover novel genetic and microbial factors that cause or protect against asthma.

Genetic factors will be tested in over 40 000 subjects with childhood or adult asthma, with data from environmental factors such as tobacco smoke, air pollution, nutrition, allergen exposure and industrial agents.

One particular area the team will look into is the ‘hygiene hypothesis’ – lack of exposure to microbes in early childhood may cause increased risk of developing asthma and allergies. “Earlier work has indicated this may be the case,” suggested von Mutius, “but we hope the scale of GABRIEL will allow us to properly test the hypothesis and to identify the responsible agents.”

“This type of very large-scale study can only be carried out with international co-operation. We are most fortunate that we are able to carry out the GABRIEL project within Europe, with its wide diversity of environments and genes and yet its shared scientific heritage,” von Mutius observed.

Thanks to EU-funding, GABRIEL can draw on the best of asthma and genetic research from many countries. Indeed, the protective effect of a rural childhood indicates that asthma is a potentially preventable illness.

Source:  EU project

Research DG contacts

More information:

  • GABRIEL (on University of Basel website)

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