The University Record, September 18, 2000

Kids with asthma help researchers find what triggers the disease

By Amy Reyes
News and Information Services

Detroit children participating in a School of Public Health asthma research project recently visited the school to learn more about asthma research. The children toured research labs at the School of Public Health and at the Medical School. Pictured (from left) are Danielle Smith of Detroit; Toby Lewis, a research scientist with the Michigan Center for the Environment and Children’s Health (MCECH); and Maria Pruitt of Detroit. Photo by Amy Reyes
Having asthma isn’t something a child would wish for. Fitful coughs and sleepless nights are no fun. Neither is carrying an inhaler or medication needed to ward off asthma attacks.

But 304 Detroit children ages 7–11 with moderate to severe asthma are going an extra mile by participating in a School of Public Health research project designed to identify and reduce asthma triggers. Through the project, called Community Action Against Asthma (CAAA), researchers have given children assignments that can include using an air watch monitor and keeping a daily record of asthma symptoms.

Their efforts will help researchers target and address triggers of asthma, a disease that contributes to missed days of school, trips to the emergency room and, in extreme cases, death.

“The results of our research will also be useful in other urban areas where asthma is a problem,” says Kathy Edgren, CAAA project manager. “Unlike other studies, our study focuses on the interaction of indoor and outdoor air quality, and we have a larger sample size than similar asthma studies. It’s also an intervention project in which we’ve established a community partnership to help carry out interventions.”

CAAA is a five-year research project that is part of the School of Public Health’s Michigan Center for the Environment and Children’s Health (MCECH—pronounced “M-Check”). MCECH is one of eight “Centers of Excellence for Children’s Environmental Health” funded by $7 million in grants from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Now in its third of five years, CAAA is a comprehensive project that involves tracking allergens in homes and examining exposure to air pollutants to determine the effect pollutants have on asthma symptoms.

Teams of faculty members, research assistants, staff and project managers like Edgren are involved, but CAAA also relies on the support of community groups in Detroit that have played a key role in recruiting and communicating with the families participating in the research. The groups—11 in all—have formed a partnership with the School, that it hopes to maintain long after the life of the research.

The children, who reside in the city’s east and southwest sides, were selected for the study because they were diagnosed with or showed symptoms of having moderate to severe asthma. Approximately 30 percent of the children were previously undiagnosed.

The research has benefited the families in a number of ways. Most of the children have undergone allergy skin testing; and vacuum cleaners with HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters will eventually be given to all of the families. During the next two years, outreach workers who live in the community will work with each of the families to develop personalized intervention plans to reduce household asthma triggers.

“One of our goals is to reach out to the community and to leave a long-lasting impact,” Edgren says.

School of Public Health principal investigators and co-investigators of CAAA research projects include: Barbara Israel, professor of health behavior and health education; Edith Parker, assistant professor of health behavior and health education; Tom Robins, associate professor of environmental health sciences; Gerald Keeler, associate professor of environmental health; Xihong Lin, associate professor of biostatistics; Martin Philbert, assistant professor of environmental health sciences; and Jerome Nriagu, professor of environmental health sciences. Daniel Remick, professor of pathology, also is a principal investigator. Randy Brown, assistant professor of pediatric pulmonology, is a co-principal investigator.