Johns Hopkins tapping genomes to find out why so many African-Americans get asthma

No one is sure why as many as 20% of African-Americans have asthma. Kathleen Barnes will lead an effort to solve the medical mystery.

Barnes is an immunogeneticist at The Johns Hopkins University's School of Medicine and Bloomberg School of Public Health. She's the principal investigator of a recently launched, four-year plan to sequence the genomes of 1,000 people of African descent.

African-Americans are much more likely to need hospitalization or face a fatal asthmatic episode than the rest of their compatriots, Johns Hopkins notes. The condition can also be debilitating, with patients struggling to breathe and frequently wheezing and coughing.

Researchers, supported by a $9.5 million federal grant, will sequence the genetic code for 500 asthmatics and 500 non-asthmatics. They'll work with San Diego-based Illumina ($ILMN), which is developing a customized DNA microarray test that will quickly find genetic mutations in the samples that could be connected to heightened risk of disease. Scientists will use the device, dubbed the "African power chip," instead of existing versions already made by Illumina and rival Affymetrix. Those were developed through work on patients of white European origins and don't take into account genetic variations unique to African-Americans, Johns Hopkins said.

Barnes said in a statement that the work could also help identify the genetic origins of other diseases that affect black patients. The study will also go global, recruiting participants from sites in the United States, Caribbean, South America and Western Africa. Barnes and her team will make their data available through the dbGAP national database of genome-wide association studies at the National Library of Medicine. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute funded the project.

- here's the release
- read The Baltimore Sun story
- check out the GenomeWeb story

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