There is nothing as frightening as not being able to breathe, yet every 10 seconds someone in the UK will have a potentially life-threatening asthma attack. Wales has one of the highest prevalence rates of asthma in the world with nearly 314,000 people with asthma. Yet outcomes for people with asthma remain poor and in 2015 there were 1302 deaths from asthma in England and Wales – a ten-year peak. This is perhaps unsurprising when up to 50% of people with asthma respond poorly to conventional treatments and the last great scientific breakthrough for asthma came several decades ago in the form of the now ubiquitous inhaler. People with asthma urgently need a breakthrough.
The opportunity for change
To address this substantial unmet need for asthma research, Asthma UK has led the European Asthma Research and Innovation Partnership (EARIP) – a three-year project that has brought together leading scientists, industry and people with asthma. The EARIP project has produced detailed roadmaps for the next wave of asthma research focusing on the development of new diagnostics, digital asthma management tools, and new treatments for people with severe asthma. If research is taken forward in these areas, outcomes for people with asthma could dramatically change.
Wales’ excellent science infrastructure
Wales is uniquely placed to deliver the next research breakthrough for people with asthma and recently Asthma UK held an event at the Welsh Assembly to seek support for increased investment in asthma research.
At the event, Minister for Skills and Science Julie James highlighted Wales’ excellent track record on research into the causes of asthma, in particular the ground-breaking work at Cardiff University that uncovered one of asthma’s potential root causes. The Minister added that it was entirely right to expand asthma research, particularly with such high rates of asthma in Wales.
The Minister’s endorsement builds upon the Welsh Government’s efforts over the past four years to place science as a key income generator for the Welsh economy. The 2012 Science for Wales strategy identified life sciences and health as one of three grand challenges and this ambition has been matched with unprecedented investment via a flagship £100m Life Sciences Investment Fund. At its heart, there is a strong recognition from the Welsh Government that a world class infrastructure and research base can deliver health and wealth for Wales.
Taking forward asthma research in Wales
Wales has several key advantages that can drive a revolution in asthma research. Firstly, the SAIL Databank based at Swansea University is able to link together primary and secondary care data across Wales in a way that has not yet occurred in other parts of the UK. The SAIL Databank could be at the centre of using data from GPs and pharmacies to identify people with asthma at increasing risk, enabling the possibility of action before a life-threatening asthma attack. Wales is well-placed to be a testbed for how big data and personalised digital technology can improve asthma outcomes, especially with the expected advent of smart inhalers and digitisation of action plans.
Cardiff University’s Precision Medicine Catapult could also become a focal point for asthma research. Asthma is a highly complex disease and diagnosis has yet to reach the sophistication that we have come to take for granted in other conditions. The lack of accurate diagnostic tools can lead to mistreatment, morbidity and ultimately waste. The recently created Precision Medicine Catapult could help to create diagnostic tests and provide data-based insights to develop highly targeted treatments with more predictable, safer, and cost-effective outcomes. Research by the Catapult would help to meet the considerable need for new diagnostic tools to identify different asthma biomarkers and ultimately reduce asthma attacks.
Improving health and wealth
The Welsh Government’s continued commitment to the expansion of its science infrastructure has attracted significant investment from the private sector, as exemplified by the Life Sciences Hub and Institute of Life Science. This hotbed of innovation and collaboration provides the perfect platform to deliver a revolution in asthma research and could help to drive significant income generation.
With the size of the asthma drugs market expected to reach $23bn by 2023 as global prevalence of increases from 300 to 400 million by middle of the next decade, asthma can be an exemplar condition for medical research and a driver for economic growth. Asthma UK welcomes the Minister’s support for further asthma research in Wales, which could deliver better outcomes for people with asthma while also seizing a considerable market opportunity for the Welsh economy.