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New Computer Program Helps Identify Causes of Asthma

Can depression lead to asthma? How about over-medicating?

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and UPMC are trying to answer these questions with a new computer program that has the ability to track 112 clinical variables for 398 people who do and do not have asthma.

This program can identify various subtypes of the disease such as asthma related to allergies, sinuses or environmental factors.

Wei Wu, an associate professor at CMU’s Lane Center for Computational Biology, said they want to help clinicians better define “asthma.”

“Asthma’s a very common disease, but if you really look into asthma, you find that it’s very heterogeneous,” Wu said. “So basically different people who have asthma can have very different...reactions and also symptoms.”

According to Wu, the analysis identified clusters of patients with potential new subtypes not yet recognized by clinicians.

The analysis of the data was based on 112 variables such as lung functions, immune factors, family history, environmental factors and medical history.

Wu said they want their research to identify the different subtypes of asthma so more specific treatments can be developed.

“When I say ‘identify,’ basically it means that we can help them to do better diagnosis of asthma phenotypes,” Wu said.

Wu said she was surprised by one cluster of obese female patients of Hispanic descent.

This sector of patients had normal lung function with little inflammation but still suffered frequent and severe symptoms

“In terms of lung function and information, their disease doesn’t look too bad, but they just have sort of a bad feeling about the quality of life,” Wu said. “So this is actually a novel subtype that we have identified.”

She said she is interested eventually in seeing if this subtype of patients has an association with depression.

But the next stage of research involves making connections between the data and the actual human body.

“The next step is actually trying to connect what we found in this clinical data to gene expression microarray,” Wu said. “Then trying to find biological mechanisms underlying each specific type of asthma.”  

The ultimate goal, she said, is to develop therapies that are based on those biological mechanisms rather than simply treating the symptoms.

Jess is from Elizabeth Borough, PA and is a junior at Duquesne University with a double major in journalism and public relations. She was named as a fellow in the WESA newsroom in May 2013.