Agilent and the Mystery of Amish Asthma

Asthma is a chronic lung disease that inflames and narrows the airways, which can result in life-threatening breathing difficulties.  The disease affects 300 million people globally and causes 250,000 annual deaths.  Eleven percent of cases are caused by workplace conditions such as exposure to fumes, gases or dust. (World Health Organization)

Here’s one more noteworthy factoid: The rate of asthma among Hutterite children in North Dakota is 15 percent.  But the rate among Amish children in Indiana – genetically similar to the Hutterites – is only 5 percent.  (The overall rate among all Americans is 8 percent.)

Why is this?  Both are farming groups that migrated from Alpine Europe.  Both currently live and intermarry in closed communities, so they have preserved their genetic similarities.

But there is one major difference: The Hutterites use modern mechanized farming techniques.  The Amish do not.  As a result, Hutterite children grow up indoors.  Amish children grow up outdoors, with constant exposure to dust and animals.

Scientists believe that rising asthma rates in Western countries are due to children being raised in increasingly sterile environments.  Early exposure to bacteria and other organic substances may help youngsters build an immunity to the disease.

A group of American researchers is studying the dust from Amish farms, to see if they can isolate the exact substance that offers protection from asthma.  The team includes Shane Snyder, a professor of chemical and environmental engineering at the University of Arizona.

I’ve blogged about Dr. Snyder.  He is an Agilent Thought Leader, recognized for his research in known and unknown environmental contaminants.  A colleague calls Dr. Snyder “an artist in taking a sample and dividing it into its different components.” (University of Arizona)

The researchers hope their work will lead to new therapeutic approaches for preventing and treating asthma.

Today’s blog post topic was suggested by Agilent General Manager Craig Marvin.

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