NBN News “Medical Marvels” Series – Viruses and Asthma

Jun 1 2009

Despite much progress in recent years, both asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) continue to cause health problems in adults and children.

Both COPD and asthma affect about 1 in 10 Australians.

Dr Peter Wark

Dr Peter Wark, a Senior Respiratory Staff Specialist with Hunter New England Health, is investigating these diseases in the laboratory and the clinic.

What have you discovered?

We made an important discovery about why people with asthma are more susceptible to the effects of virus infection. We found that people with asthma have a defect in the antiviral responses of the cells that line the airway walls.

Why is this significant?

Virus induced asthma attacks are a huge health and economic burden and are the most common reason for adults and children with asthma presenting to the emergency departments of our hospitals.

Virus induced asthma affects 50 to 80 per cent of the patients I see at John Hunter Hospital.

How will this contribute to our understanding of disease?

Exposure to allergies, pollutants, cigarette smoke and infection with bacteria and viruses are thought to trigger the abnormal response in the airways of people with asthma and COPD.

We hope to discover why people with asthma or COPD are susceptible to viral infection and why their disease gets worse with infection. This knowledge will lead to more effective treatments.

What have you achieved since receiving the PULSE Award for Early Career Research in 2005?

I have continued my clinical research and our current study will examine the effect of inflammation of the airways in worsening lung disease in adults and children with asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema and other inflammatory lung diseases.

We aim to detect important differences in the ways the airway cells react to triggers of lung inflammation, thereby giving us a better understanding of both asthma and COPD.

I have been invited to speak at the American Thoracic Society, the preeminent scientific meeting in this field.

Peter is a member of the HMRI Viruses, Infections/Immunity, Vaccines & Asthma (VIVA) Research Program.

His research has been supported by HMRI pilot grants, funded by corporate and community donations and the Markey Charity Golf Day.