November 1, 2002

Meharry, VUMC receive $6 million to study asthma

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Drs. Ruben Pamies, left, and James “Bo” Sheller will direct the Meharry/Vanderbilt Center for Reducing Asthma Disparities. (photo by Dana Johnson)

Meharry, VUMC receive
$6 million to study asthma

Meharry Medical College and Vanderbilt University Medical Center are teaming up to try to understand why some minority and low-income groups suffer disproportionately from asthma.

The National Heart Lung and Blood Institute this week announced the awarding of a five-year, $6 million grant to Meharry and Vanderbilt to establish a new Center for Reducing Asthma Disparities.

Dr. Ruben Pamies, chairman of Internal Medicine at Meharry, and Dr. James R. Sheller, associate professor of Medicine at Vanderbilt, will direct the Meharry/Vanderbilt center, one of five in the country.

Asthma is a major childhood illness that causes chronic breathing difficulties, coughing and wheezing, and which sometimes can be fatal. African-American children are three times more likely than whites to be hospitalized for treatment of asthma, and four times more likely to die from asthma-related complications.

While the number of Americans with asthma — more than 14 million people — has doubled since the late 1980s, it is not known why African Americans are affected more frequently and more severely than whites. “The center will help us begin to find out some of the reasons why,” Pamies said.

In addition, says Sheller, “the center will allow us to train investigators in many different disciplines to undertake research in the broad field of asthma disparities.”

The center is an initiative of the Meharry/Vanderbilt Alliance, established in 1999 to promote collaboration between the two institutions in teaching, research and patient care. Similarly, the four other asthma centers are partnerships between medical research institutions, and those that serve minority or economically disadvantaged populations.

They include Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., and Howard University in Washington, D.C.; Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Center for Community Health Education in Boston; Northwestern University and Cook County Hospital in Chicago; and Rhode Island Hospital in Providence, R.I., and the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan.

“We expect this program to have a far-reaching impact by creating a legacy of research programs for improving asthma care and by ultimately serving as a model for studying ways to reduce disparities in other chronic diseases,” Dr. Claude Lenfant, director of the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, said in a news release.

The Meharry/Vanderbilt center will focus on four research areas: outcomes of pregnant asthmatics; the effectiveness of an intensive treatment intervention to help minority pregnant asthmatics; ways that minority asthmatics experience and respond to asthma symptoms; and possible differences in responses to asthma treatment in African-American and white children with severe asthma.

Conferences, seminars and lectures on asthma disparities will be given at Meharry and Vanderbilt. The center also will collaborate with local physicians and area health departments to help improve the understanding and reduction of asthma disparities in the Nashville area.