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Scientists pinpoint genetic risk factors for asthma, hay fever and eczema

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01 November 2017

A major international study has pinpointed more than 100 genetic risk factors that explain why some people suffer from asthma, hay fever and eczema. In this worldwide study UMCG-researchers Judith Vonk and Gerard Koppelman were collaborating with scienstist from Australia, USA and Europe. It has been published in the prestigious journal Nature Genetics.

This was the first study designed specifically to find genetic risk factors that are shared among the three most common allergic conditions. Asthma, hay fever and eczema are allergic diseases that affect different parts of the body: the lung, the nose and the skin. From earlier research was already known that they were similar at many levels. For example, known was that the three diseases shared many genetic risk factors. But absolutely not known was exactly where in the genome those shared genetic risk factors were located. “This is important to know because it tells us which specific genes, when not working properly, cause allergic conditions. This knowledge helps us understand why allergies develop in the first place and, potentially, gives us new clues on how they could be prevented or treated”, dr Gerard Koppelman said.

In this study the researchers analysed the genomes of 360,838 people and pinpointed 136 separate positions in the genome that are risk factors for developing these conditions. This means that if someone inherits these genetic risk factors from his or her parents, it will predispose him or her to all three allergic conditions.

Dr Koppelman said those 136 genetic risk factors influenced whether 132 nearby genes were switched on or off.  “We think that these genes influence the risk of asthma, hay fever and eczema by affecting how the cells of the immune system work,” he said. “Importantly, we have identified several drugs that we believe could be targeted at some of these genes to treat allergies. The first step would be to test those drugs in the laboratory.”

The study involved collaborators from Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, the UK and the US.  Vonk and Koppelman used data from the biobank Lifelines.