For many doctors, figuring out what caused a kid’s asthma attack means opening up regional air quality databases and applying a lot of guesswork.
While pollution from cars and other sources is known to trigger asthma in some children, there are a number of lesser-understood factors that also increase their risk – everything from viral infections to stress to playing soccer all day.
A team of University of Utah researchers has received a $5.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering to develop an informatics platform that will make it possible to crowdsource scientific data and, eventually, pinpoint the cause of a child’s wheezing.
“Retail is doing this already,” explains Julio Facelli, Ph.D., professor of biomedical informatics and an associate director at the Utah Center for Clinical and Translational Science (CCTS). “We’ll be using some of the same big data techniques but applying them to biomedical research, which is much more complex.”
Facelli, along with co-principal investigator Kathy Sward, Ph.D., R.N., associate professor of biomedical informatics research at the College of Nursing, is leading teams to create an Internet-based “infrastructure” that will enable kids with asthma, parents, doctors and researchers to feed real-time information into a comprehensive database.
“Pediatric asthma is complicated and we don’t fully understand how to control it,” Facelli says. “Our system will allow researchers worldwide unprecedented access to environmental exposure and other clinically relevant data, enabling them to answer questions they didn’t even know they could ask.”
The grant, a component of the Pediatric Research using Integrated Sensor Monitoring Systems (or PRISMS) program from the NIH NIBIB, will run for four years. Over that time, the team of researchers – and a group of between 10 and 20 Utah families – will test personal air quality monitors and create Web-based interfaces that could form the foundation of future pediatric asthma research.
“It’s not the information itself that’s the point of it,” Sward says. “It’s how the information flows and it is organized.”
The first year, researchers will focus on finding families willing to try out a series of air quality sensors and begin developing computer systems to process in real-time and integrate the new streams of information with clinical data. The second and third years will be spent refining the computer infrastructure – sensor connections and a website design — and developing other modes for inputting the data, including age-appropriate mobile apps. In the final year, the researchers plan to run a pilot study with Utah families.
“Technology advances have become a powerful driver in studying and understanding the start and spread of disease,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. “These projects will expand the toolbox available to researchers to improve our ability to characterize environmental exposures.”
When the virtual pipeline is complete, a seventh-grader carrying an air quality sensor in his backpack and his doctor could tell whether the aerosol cleaner the school janitor was spraying at class break might have sent the student to the emergency room a few hours later.