March 11, 2011 -- Researchers in Australia have identified four molecular characteristics, or biomarkers, of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which they say could lead to better ways to diagnose the respiratory conditions.
The biomarkers were discovered using a relatively new field of science known as proteomics, which is the study of the proteins that are involved in the make-up of an organism.
Asthma and COPD have many similar symptoms and confirming a diagnosis of either disease remains a challenge, researcher Peter G. Gibson, MD, of the University of Newcastle in New South Wales, Australia tells WebMD.
“In the case of asthma, people are often given inhaled steroids for lifelong use without any objective confirmation of the diagnosis,” he says. “We certainly wouldn’t do that with hypertension or diabetes.”
With COPD, which is commonly smoking related, patients are often diagnosed late in life and late in the course of the disease due to the lack of objective testing, he says.
Developing a Test for Asthma and COPD
In their effort to develop an objective test for asthma and COPD, Gibson and colleagues turned to proteomics.
Proteins are the workhorses of cells, playing crucial roles in just about every aspect of cellular activity.
The hope of proteomics is that by studying how the proteins in human cells interact, researchers will discover better treatments and better ways to diagnose and manage a wide range of diseases.
But the task is daunting: a single gene can code for hundreds of proteins and there are now believed to be between 20,000 to 25,000 protein-coding genes in the human genome. That means each of us has more than 1 million different proteins.
Proteins Involved in Inflammation
In the study, Gibson and colleagues studied the blood samples of 21 people with asthma, five people with COPD, and 17 people with no evidence of respiratory disease.
Recent advances in the field allowed them to separate and compare thousands of proteins in a short period of time.
By separating plasma proteins from the samples, the researchers identified the four blood-based biomarkers which, when used in combination, were able to discriminate between asthma, COPD, and no disease.
All four proteins are involved in the regulation of inflammation and are predominantly synthesized in the liver.
The results were confirmed in a separate group of patients and people without asthma or COPD.
University of Newcastle senior research fellow Xiao Van He, who also worked on the study, says the test may also prove useful for following the progress of asthma and COPD treatments in patients with established disease.
“This has the potential to be a revolutionary technique,” she says. “It will allow us to look for these diseases in a completely different way.