The University of Arizona

Researchers to Study How Dogs Decrease Asthma Susceptibility

By Johnny Cruz, October 9, 2009

Researchers at the UA aim to learn more about how the presence of dogs at home seems to reduce the risk of children contracting asthma and its related conditions later in life.

Serrine Lau
Serrine Lau

Serrine Lau, professor at the University of Arizona College of Pharmacy, and a team of UA researchers have received a two-year National Institutes of Health Challenge Grant of $937,302 to study how dogs present in the home near the time of a child's birth decrease his or her chance of developing asthma.

Lau, who is principal investigator on the study, is also director of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center and a member of the BIO5 Institute.

"Several longitudinal studies have shown that exposure to certain domestic animals, for example, indoor dogs, during a person's early life (even possibly before he or she is born) is associated with strong protection against asthma and asthma-related conditions later in life," Lau said. "The purpose of our research is to learn more about the biological mechanisms responsible for the protective effects of dog exposure. Conceivably, this could be a step toward someday leveraging these mechanisms for treatment or even preventive purposes."

Lau, who is an expert in proteomics, will be joined on the project by BIO5 faculty Marilyn Halonen, and Dr. Donata Vercelli,  experts in allergy biology and immunology, and Dean Billheimer, a biostatistician.

Together, the team will use their complementary expertise to study a unique set of samples and data from the Infant Immune Study. The principal investigator of the infant immune study is Anne Wright, associate director of the Arizona Respiratory Center and professor in the UA College of Medicine.

This longitudinal study of asthma and allergy, conducted at the UA's Arizona Respiratory Center, enrolled at birth a large unselected population of children and is still following then eight years later, gathering detailed information about immunological parameters, allergies and lung function.

The team hypothesizes that exposure to dogs at an early age creates a "signature" (either the presence or the modification of a protein) in a child's blood.

By comparing the signatures of children known to have been exposed to dogs at an early age with the signatures of children known not to have been exposed to dogs, and by noting the presence or absence of asthma in the children, the team hopes to learn more about how children exposed to dogs at an early age are protected from asthma.

Samples from the Infant Immune Study will be analyzed by the researchers using mass spectrometry-based proteomics methods. The team will use mass spectrometry to identify and characterize the signatures in the children's blood. No other researchers are known to be using this technology for this purpose.

Challenge Grants are funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which President Obama signed into law in February 2009.

According to Lau, to date the NIH has received more than 20,000 grant proposals. The initial steps of this project were supported by seed funds provided by the Arizona Initiative for the Biology of Complex Diseases, directed by Dr. Vercelli, one of the co-investigators.