Professor Julian Crane is the director of the Wellington Asthma Research Group at the University of Otago. Julian leads a group of research scientists whose work focuses primarily on asthma and allergies, but also covers smoking cessation, eczema and other respiratory conditions, like bronchiolitis.
A sometimes-overlooked way of managing asthma and other respiratory conditions is to create a healthy environment inside your home, with warm, dry and well-ventilated rooms. In relatively wealthy countries, including New Zealand, people spend most of their lives indoors, yet thousands of us are living in cold, damp and mouldy homes. These conditions can have an abundance of negative consequences to our health, but the lungs are particularly affected. Unhealthy living conditionst can cause new chronic respiratory conditions to emerge and can also cause flare-ups in existing respiratory conditions like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD).
It is not known why cold, damp and mouldy homes cause breathing problems. However, Julian was involved in a study, which showed that children living in homes with damp and mould were more likely to report wheezing illness than those in dry homes. This suggests that there are factors associated with mould and damp that can irritate the airways.
Julian is also interested in a phenomenon called the Hygiene Hypothesis. The hypothesis states that if we grow up with in an environment that is too clean and sanitary, we do not get enough exposure to bacteria and other ‘germs’ and our immune systems do not develop appropriately, resulting in more allergies and/or asthma as we get older. This theory is supported by the fact that people from Westernised countries, where children spend most of their time in very clean indoor environments, have a much higher prevalence of asthma and allergy, compared to countries where children spend more time playing outdoors.
Also, children living on farms have less asthma than those living in cities though to be due to exposure to specific bugs associated with farms. Working with a group in Finland, who have shown that farm-like bugs can be found in non-farm homes that are also associated with less asthma, Julian and his team are trying to determine exactly how these bugs may be encouraged in a child’s home environment to protect against asthma and allergies. This might potentially provide mechanisms to substantially reduce asthma and allergies.
Thank you to Professor Julian Crane for speaking to ARFNZ about his team’s work.
We spoke to Merryn Tawhai, who is Deputy Director of the Auckland Bioengineering Institute, and Kelly Burrowes, who is an Associate Professor at the Institute about their research, which involves using computer models of lungs to personalise medicine.