February 18, 2004

Professor Studies Asthma, Antioxidants

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Prof. Patricia Cassano, nutritional science, and Rachel Rubin ’02 published an article entitiled “Relationship of Serum Antioxidants to Asthma Prevalence in Youth,” in the Feb. 1 issue of the widely-read American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine (AJRCCM). The article covered researched the two conducted while Rubin was an undergraduate.

“The main finding of this study is [that] consuming higher levels of antioxidants is related to a lower prevalence of asthma in a sample of youth from the U.S. population,” Cassano said.

According to the AJRCCM article, the association between higher antioxidant levels and lower asthma occurrence was especially strong for children exposed to cigarette smoke.

“As environmental tobacco smoke has been shown to be a risk factor for asthma, the best approach is to avoid exposure, obviously,” Cassano said. “Our study does show that with greater oxidant exposure, such as from environmental tobacco smoke, there is a greater association of antioxidants and asthma, but we can’t infer a cause-effect relation from this study.”

According to the American Lung Cancer Society, about 6.3 million children have asthma and the estimated annual cost of treating asthma in children is $3.2 billion.

Cassano’s interest in the role of antioxidants extends beyond just asthma. For over twelve years, she has been investigating the impact of antioxidants on chronic diseases in general.

“It always seemed to me that although there was a lot of interest in the potential role of antioxidants in preventing heart disease and cancer, not much was being done at that time on lung outcomes,” she said, “And it seemed to me that there was quite a strong possibility that antioxidants could be important to those outcomes … The question back then was if you could boost antioxidants through dietary manipulation, would that be beneficial in preventing these diseases? So that’s how [my research group] got into it.”

Rubin, now a graduate student at the University of Rochester, joined the research group as a sophomore after taking Cassano’s class in molecular epidemiology, dietary markers, and chronic disease.

“I talked to her about it before I took the class with her, and then afterwards I guess she felt that I had sufficient background in epidemiology to be able to work in her research group,” Rubin said. “So it was kind of my interest and I approached her and then she approached me.”

She explained that she was primarily interested in doing epidemiological research and the antioxidants and asthma project Cassano’s group was working on ended up being a good fit.

“I was responsible for doing background research like literature reviews and helping Dr. Cassano to design the analyses and conducting the statistical analyses,” Rubin said. “I wrote up what was the result of the analyses for my honors thesis in human biology, health, and society and then basically, that honors thesis became what is the paper. So we basically worked together through everything.”

Both Rubin and Cassano cautioned that the research was a study that simply looked at observational data gathered in a national survey. They pointed out that it is not one that was designed to prove a cause and effect relationship between antioxidants and asthma.

“The most that we can really say from the research is that higher serum antioxidants were associated with a decreased risk of asthma,” Rubin said, “But it’s hard to make a causal inference.”

Cassano explained that real value of the research lay in setting up the groundwork for application research.

“These types of studies are very important because they lead us to be interested in the question further,” she said. Later, she added that, “The study of dietary factors in relation to asthma risk is still in its early stages, and in the future we may see more intervention studies to directly study whether changing diet would change either the occurrence of asthma or the progression of the disease once you have it.”

As far as understanding the connection between diet and asthma, Cassano believes that research about those questions is still in the infancy stages.

“Ultimately what we would like to know is if we change dietary patterns, would that change the risk of disease?”

Archived article by Sarah Colby