Genomics Center Awarded Grants to Study Asthma and Prostate Cancer

December 14, 2004

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – The Center for Human Genomics at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center has been awarded $8.5 million by the National Institutes of Health to conduct five research projects on the role that genes may play in prostate cancer and asthma.

Prostate cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer death deaths among men in the United States. In 2003, an estimated 220,000 new prostate cancer cases were diagnosed. Age, race and family history are the strongest risk factors for the disease. The importance of family history is why scientists want to learn more about genes that may influence risk. In addition to several ongoing studies, the genomics center will conduct three new projects in this area:

* Exploring a theory that chronic inflammation contributes to prostate cancer, researchers will study 1,400 men from Sweden with prostate cancer and 800 men who don’t have the disease. Led by Jianfeng Xu, Dr. P.H., M.D., professor of public health sciences, the team will evaluate between 30 and 40 different genes that regulate inflammation to see if they are related to prostate cancer risk.

* In another project, also led by Xu, researchers will study two genes that are believed to suppress tumors. Research in animals has suggested that when particular combinations of the genes are inherited, risk of prostate cancer increases. The researchers will test the theory in families that are at high risk of developing prostate cancer. The project, which will assess the effects of each gene and of the various combinations, is the first to study how the genes may interact to influence risk.

* Researchers will test a new approach to look for gene variants that may be associated with prostate cancer risk. The approach, which will pool DNA samples from hundreds of people, allows for more economical testing than was previously possible. The study, led by Siqun Zheng, M.D., assistant professor of internal medicine, will involve 2,411 men with prostate cancer and 1,899 men who don’t have the disease. The goal is to learn whether this approach is valid for systematically screening a large number of gene variants for associations with prostate cancer risk. If the study is successful, it will reduce the amount of work and costs for this type of large genetic study.

Asthma, a disease in which the airways become blocked or narrowed, affects an estimated 17 million people in the United States. Asthma results in an estimated half-million hospital stays each year, with treatment costing billions of dollars. Asthma is an inflammatory disease of the airways caused by certain combinations of genes for asthma and environmental exposures. The research projects are:

* More than 4,000 severe and difficult-to-treat asthmatics from multiple clinics around the country will be involved in a study led by Eugene Bleecker, M.D., professor of internal medicine. Research has already shown that severe asthma may be caused by allergies, inflammation and the physical structure of airways. This new research will look at how these three factors can lead to severe asthma, by examining genes that control these processes in the body.

The project will also look at genes that control the body’s response to asthma drugs, because genes may explain some of the difficulties in successfully treating the disease. If this study can identify genes important in severe asthma, it may explain why some asthmatics have more severe disease and why some do not respond well to current available treatments.

* A new phase of research involving 637 Dutch families with asthma will work to find the genes that are linked to asthma. The research team, led by Deborah Meyers, Ph.D., professor of pediatrics, has already identified two areas where they are likely to find asthma genes. It will now examine these areas in more detail using several leading-edge technologies. In addition, the team will study the effect of interactions between genes and environment, specifically looking at the effects of passive exposure to cigarette smoke in young children who later develop asthma.

The Center for Human Genomics was established in 2000 to investigate genetic mechanisms in the development and progression of complex human diseases, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, prostate cancer and pulmonary diseases such as allergies and asthma.


Media Contacts: Karen Richardson,; Shannon Koontz,; at 336-716-4587

About Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center: Wake Forest Baptist is an academic health system comprised of North Carolina Baptist Hospital and Wake Forest University Health Sciences, which operates the university’s School of Medicine. The system comprises 1,282 acute care, psychiatric, rehabilitation and long-term care beds and is consistently ranked as one of “America’s Best Hospitals” by U.S. News & World Report.

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