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A person struggles, then panics, gasping for air but unable to inhale — as if “I were trying to breathe air underwater” or “an elephant is sitting on my chest.”
Those are the most common analogies cited for what a severe asthma attack is like. A new $61 million study led by researchers at UNC will try to identify better treatments for such attacks by combining two tools — precision medicine and “big data” analysis.
The five-year study is being led by Anastasia Ivanova, associate professor of biostatistics at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health. Co-principal investigators include David Couper, clinical professor of biostatistics; and Dr. David B. Peden, senior associate dean for translational research at UNC’s School of Medicine and adjunct professor of environmental sciences and engineering.
Severe asthma affects nearly 10 percent of people worldwide. Despite currently available treatments, the condition remains poorly controlled for many patients. This National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute study and clinical trials will support a personalized medicine approach to identify new therapies for severe asthma, tailored to an individual’s disease and treatment history.
The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute is one of the largest institutes within the National Institutes of Health, and UNC consistently is among the top universities in the U.S. receiving research funding. In fiscal 2016, the University received $847 million in research awards, according to research.unc.edu/about/funding.
“People with severe asthma have trouble breathing almost all of the time and experience frequent, debilitating attacks,” Ivanova said. “It’s not only frightening — it can be deadly.”
Ivanova noted that her son has a light form of asthma. “I can only imagine what patients with severe asthma go through on a daily basis,” she said.
This new, large-scale study will select patients and their treatments based on biomarkers.
“In addition to using specific biomarkers to pair patients with specific treatments aimed at those biomarkers, our study will allow changes to therapies as new data is gathered,” Ivanova said. “So, if a patient is not doing well on his or her current therapy, it will be possible for the patient to switch therapies in the course of the trial.”
There also will be extensive data collection during the clinical trials to help further refine treatments, not only for the study participants, but also for others with similar or identical biomarkers. Ten medical centers across the U.S. have been approved by the National Institutes of Health to conduct the trials.
The study was awarded to Ivanova under the auspices of the Collaborative Studies Coordinating Center in the biostatistics department in the public health school.