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Release: Immediate

EDITORS: David Schwartz, M.D., will be in Washington, D.C. Monday, Aug. 10 for this grant award announcement. He will be available to answer questions via telephone Monday morning only, however. To arrange an interview, call David Pedersen at (319) 335-8032.

Researchers get $6 million to study asthma, other airway diseases in rural children

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Researchers at the University of Iowa College of Medicine have been awarded a five-year, $6 million federal grant to study the causes of asthma and other forms of airway disease in children from rural communities. The grant award was announced today by Vice President Al Gore at a White House news conference in Washington, D.C.

The UI was selected as one of eight research institutions to be funded by the Department of Health and Human Services (National Institutes of Health) and the Environmental Protection Agency to study children's environmental health hazards. The other centers are the University of Southern California, the University of Michigan, Johns Hopkins University, the University of California-Berkeley, the University of Washington, Columbia University and Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

The UI researchers, led by David Schwartz, M.D., professor of internal medicine, plan to study at least 300 asthmatic children in both Keokuk County and a similar rural county to learn more about the role of organic dusts, pollens, dust mites and viruses in the development of asthma in children from rural areas. The UI team will examine the causes of asthma in children living in rural communities, develop ways to reduce levels of respiratory illness among children in rural areas, and determine how organic dusts and viruses lead to the development of asthma. This multi-component research program will also determine how asthma becomes a chronic disease and why at least two environmental exposures (such as organic dusts and viruses) are needed to initiate and exacerbate this condition.

Schwartz, along with UI researchers Gary Hunninghake, M.D., professor of internal medicine; James Merchant, M.D., professor and head of preventive medicine and environmental health; and William Nauseef, M.D., professor of internal medicine, will direct individual projects within this interactive research program, all focusing on environmental causes of asthma in children from rural communities.

"Exposure to grain dust and endotoxin (a toxic product of bacteria) is common in rural areas, and these exposures are associated with the development of asthma and other forms of airway disease in children," Schwartz said. "Understanding the link between these exposures and airway diseases that affect children in Iowa and other rural areas could lead to preventive programs that improve the quality of life for these young people. My son, Sam, has asthma so I know how important it is to try and prevent this disease in children. Our research program will take an important step in understanding the causes of this disease among rural Americans."

Asthma is the most common chronic illness in children, and reports have indicated a rise in childhood asthma cases in the U.S. The incidence of asthma in children under age five has reportedly increased 160 percent from 1980 to 1994. The severity of this disease is worsening, and asthma is now the leading cause of childhood hospitalization.

The establishment of the eight "Centers of Excellence in Children's Environmental Health Research" came following an executive order issued by President Clinton in April 1997. This order made children's environmental health a priority for the federal government; in response to the mandate, the NIH and EPA allocated $10.6 million for research this year.

"This award underscores the excellence of our faculty and their commitment to research that benefits Iowans and the rest of world. Results from this investigation hopefully will yield results in better understanding how diseases such as asthma affect rural populations," said Robert P. Kelch, M.D., dean of the college.

The research program will begin in October. The community-based intervention program will work with local leaders to develop an asthma intervention plan and begin screening children for asthma. The more basic research projects have developed methods to study this disease in the laboratory and will begin to use these methods to determine the important exposures and biological responses that result in the development of persistent asthma in children.