Asthma, a inflammatory disorder of the airways that causes attacks of wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness and coughing, affects almost 2,400,000 African-Americans. According to the Office of Minority Health, Black women are 30 percent more likely to have asthma than white women; African-Americans overall are three times as likely to die from the disease; and Black children are seven times more likely to die from asthma than their white counterparts.
Why is asthma so prevalent in our community?
Experts believe that a combination of factors are to blame: air pollution, smoking cigarettes or being around cigarette smoke, poverty, poor housing, lack of education and lack of access to health care. But it may also be based on our DNA.
In past studies, researchers have found genes that were linked to asthma, but none of those genes had been race-specific. But during a recent collaboration between asthma geneticists, researchers discovered a genetic mutation only found in African-Americans. They analyzed nine different ethnically diverse groups of subjects that had asthma in North America and confirmed four other genes that had been found before, and discovered a fifth that is only present in African-Americans.
Dan Nicolae of the University of Chicago, a study author and co-chair of a national research consortium called EVE that identified the gene, told Reuters in an interview, "This is the first discovery of a gene where we see a signal in African-Americans only." He added, "The rates of asthma in different ethnic groups are different. African-Americans have shown increasing asthma rates. We don't know why. It can be due to changing environmental risk factors."
The gene, PYHIN1, affects the body's response to viral infections. But researchers are clear, that genetics alone cannot really account for why some people are more at risk for developing for asthma.
The team stressed that each gene variant on its own plays only a small role in increasing asthma risk, but that risk could be multiplied when combined with other risk genes and with environmental factors, such as smoking, that also increase asthma risk.
"It's been extraordinarily challenging to try to find variation in genes that are associated with risk for developing asthma that can be replicated among populations. It's a very complex disease with a lot of genes and a lot of environmental factors influencing risk," Carole Ober [of the University of Chicago, who co-leads the EVE consortium] said.
While this is just the beginning, this discovery could impact new asthma treatments for African-Americans down the road. That sounds like good news to me.
Learn more about asthma and African-Americans here.
(Photo: William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)