The Italian Almanac


Italian Science - November 7

Italian researchers have made a key breakthrough in the study of the causes of asthma in children. Rome researchers have found that nerve growth factor (NGF) plays a key role in making children susceptible to the disease. Asthma experts from Rome's Universita Cattolica and the National Research Council (CNR) worked with a team from Miami University to gauge NGF levels in newborn children.

They found that NGF was very high in children that developed a common respiratory illness called bronchiolitis. The disease affects the tiny airways, called bronchioles, that lead to the lungs. As these become inflamed, they swell and fill with mucus, making it difficult for the child to breathe. Bronchiolitis is a mild illness that usually retreats after two years of age but in some cases it can lead to full-blown asthma, affecting children as old as ten.

Asthma is a chronic lung condition, characterized by wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath and chest tightness. There is a general trend of increased deaths and hospitalizations from asthma in all the industrialized countries of the world. The causes of the link between broncholitis and asthma have hitherto been unknown. "We knew there was a link between the two and decided to try to find the substance that caused it," said Luca Tortorolo of the Universita' Cattolica. "Elevated levels of NGF appear to predispose children to develop the longer-lasting condition."

The Italian-American study has been published in the prestigious American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. NGF was discovered in the 1950s by Italian researcher Rita Levi Montalcini. She won the 1986 Nobel Prize in Medicine for her work.