Sunday, June 15, 2003

Research also valuable in allergies

By Tim Bonfield
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The implications of the new asthma study go well beyond asthma.

Many of the genes that are associated with asthma have been associated with other kinds of allergic reactions - including gut allergies, which can be so severe in some people that they cannot tolerate solid food, said Dr. Marc Rothenberg, director of allergy and immunology at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.

The hospital has spent years building up its expertise in complex digestive disorders, including allergies. Patients from many states, even other countries, come here seeking treatment.

And as if defining the asthma genome isn't remarkable enough, the study further illustrates the power of new DNA analysis technology that the pediatric center began using in 2000.

Not so long ago, it took entire teams of researchers years, even entire careers, to link just a single gene to a disease. Now, the "core lab" at Children's uses a DNA chip system from a company called Affymetrix that allows scanning more than 20,000 genes or more than 400,000 gene segments at a time.

Data that once took years to produce, now takes about a week. What takes time now is analyzing and verifying the information, Rothenberg said.

A similar DNA microarray analysis system - which can cost several hundred thousand dollars - has been established at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.

These systems are the practical results from years of effort to map the entire genetic codes of humans, mice and other creatures. DNA chips are being developed to study all sorts of diseases and the drugs to treat them.

"This is an unprecedented and exciting time for medical research," Rothenberg said.

Already, the DNA chips themselves are smaller than postage stamps and fit into palm-sized plastic frames. The scanning devices involved are so small they sit atop standard lab benches.

As the technology evolves, such DNA chip readers will be in nearly all hospitals, maybe even most doctor offices. Someday, medical patients might carry their own DNA chips in their wallets to be used to custom-tailor medical treatment to an individual's unique genetic code, Rothenberg said.

"I don't think that will happen in the next 10 years, but perhaps in our lifetimes," he said.

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