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Hundreds of urban children around the country will soon get injections of cockroach antigen and other allergens to see if it improves their asthma, thanks to a new grant at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health.

The $70 million federal grant, the largest ever received by the medical school, will continue the work of the Inner-City Asthma Consortium. The consortium, which started in 2002 and is based at the medical school, aims to better understand, prevent and treat asthma in inner cities, where the disease is most prevalent and often most severe.

The seven-year grant from the National Institutes of Health will support a study of whether giving shots to children ages 4 to 14 reduces asthma symptoms and the need for medications such as corticosteroids. The shots aim to desensitize the children’s immune systems to better tolerate asthma triggers such as cockroaches.

“If we can change the immune response from allergy to tolerance, we might more successfully control the disease,” said Dr. William Busse, a UW-Madison professor of allergy and immunology who is head of the project.

The consortium’s research is carried out in 10 urban centers: Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, St. Louis, New York City and Washington, D.C.

UW-Madison administers the project, designing the studies, overseeing recruitment, evaluating data and analyzing samples from the children, Busse said.

Dr. James Gern, a professor of pediatrics, leads an offshoot called the Urban Environment and Childhood Asthma Study. It has enrolled 500 children at birth in Baltimore, Boston, New York City and St. Louis, looking at how environmental factors such as stress and bacteria contribute to asthma.

Christine Sorkness, in the UW School of Pharmacy, is also involved.

In the new study, about 500 children in the 10 cities will get weekly shots for two years.

One group will get cockroach antigen, a major asthma trigger in urban areas. Another group will get cockroach antigen and any of three other allergens to which they are sensitive: mouse, dog and house dust. A third group will get a placebo.

After a year, their medications will be tapered. 

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