The nose cells of young people with allergic asthma and hayfever are different than of other young people. This is the conclusion of research conducted by paediatric lung doctor Gerard Koppelman and PhD student Cancan Qi from the University Medical Center Groningen, financed by the Longfonds (Dutch Lung Foundation ). There is also a difference between nose cells of children who have grown up with a pet and those who have not. This is the first time that a link between the environment, cell changes and allergies has been found – and this will make the diagnosis of allergic asthma in children easier. The results of the research were published today in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.
Koppelman has been researching the changes that take place in DNA over the course of a person’s life for many years. ‘We call this change methylation: when molecules bind to DNA that can turn genes on and off,’ explains Koppelman. ‘This methylation depends on a person’s age but also on a range of environmental factors.’
Nose cells of 16-year-olds
The research was conducted amongst 16-year-olds involved in the PIAMA study. ‘In this study, we have been monitoring children and young people from around the Netherlands from a very young age. We have been finding out everything about them: whether they have been growing up with parents who smoke, with pets or with air pollution in their environment, for example.’ Thanks to this study, connections have already been found between asthma, the smoking behaviour of mothers and air pollution.
Link between DNA changes and allergic asthma
The researchers took cells from the noses of young people by using a brush and then analysed the molecules in their DNA. They compared the nose cells of young people with and without asthma. ‘It appears that there is a clear difference between the two groups,’ explains Koppelman enthusiastically. In particular, he envisages applications for diagnosing allergic asthma in children aged two to four. ‘For a two-year-old who often has colds and wheezes when breathing, it is difficult to establish whether this is caused by allergic asthma or not. If we were also able to measure the difference in nose cells in young children, we could establish a diagnosis without it being very unpleasant for the child.’ Whether methylation is the cause or the consequence of allergic asthma is not clear from this research – but that doesn’t really matter when making a diagnosis.
Growing up with pets
The researchers also found a connection between environmental factors and DNA methylation in the case of asthma. ‘We already knew that children who grow up with pets appear to be protected from asthma. Now, for the first time, we have shown that there is also a clear link between growing up with pets, certain DNA methylation patterns and allergies,’ says Koppelman. ‘Still, you have to be careful when making direct conclusions on the basis of this. Our research could indicate that pets prevent asthma by influencing DNA methylation but we cannot make real pronouncements regarding causes and effects on the basis of this research. In any case, it appears that DNA methlyation provides us with a lot of information and may help us in the early diagnosis of asthma.’