The cost to society of childhood asthma is more than AIDS and tuberculosis combined, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The numbers are “staggering,” says Donata Vercelli.
Vercelli and collaborators from Chicago, Germany and Indiana have conducted groundbreaking research with children from Amish and Hutterite communities to find out what in the environment protects the Amish children from contracting asthma.
The traditional farming practices of the Amish seem to hold the clues — there’s something special in the dirt that the children are exposed to from a very young age. That something is microbes.
Exposure to these microbes needs to occur early in life. The Hutterite children customarily aren’t exposed to the animals and the microbes on their farms until they are older, and that seems to be too late for the protective benefits to kick in.
Vercelli, a professor of cellular and molecular medicine, is using mice to figure out which microbes in the dirt provide that protection, and how.
Before scientists can develop a “vaccine” to prevent asthma in children, they have to understand the disease much better, she says.
“If we find out what in the Amish environment protects from asthma and how, we will be able to identify which pathways to act on and understand better what asthma really is,” Vercelli says.
For Vercelli to obtain the rigorous biology education she desired, she pursued a medical degree in her native Florence, Italy, because at the time there were no relevant Ph.D. programs in the discipline that supported a research career.
“I wanted to do research relevant to people,” she says. That research began in the third year of her six-year medical degree program.
She worked with famous immunologists in Florence and then joined a lab at Harvard Medical School’s Boston Children’s Hospital, where she spent “10 essential years.”
She returned to Italy to care for family members. When she decided to come back to the U.S., there were offers from Stanford University as well as the University of Arizona.
“I came here because it was more suitable for the integrated type of science I was seeking. I wanted to do something beyond immunology,” Vercelli says.
The integrated research environment at the UA made it easier for her to develop mouse models for testing her theories. Researchers can better compare the effects of environmental exposures with controlled models — mice versus humans.
The Indiana Amish and South Dakota Hutterite children were studied because of their genetic similarities, both descending from German Anabaptist populations.
“This work taught us a paradigm. You learn an enormous amount if you look at populations that are very similar in many respects — genetics, diet, lifestyle — and yet differ in the rate of the disease you are interested in,” Vercelli says.
As the study of the Amish “farm effect” continues, Vercelli is moving ahead to design a project looking at asthma in children of Mexican descent living in the United States compared to Mexican children living in Mexico. The children living in Mexico develop asthma at a rate four times lower than the kids in the U.S.
“We don’t have a smoking gun here yet,” but it is already clear that the microbial environments in which these children live on the two sides of the Arizona/Mexico border are very different. “A lot will be learned from studying these populations, their microbes and their asthma,” Vercelli says.
Vercelli adds that she would like to lead her group to find a potential cure and prevention for asthma that can be tested in humans. But that won’t occur until “we understand what this disease is.” And that will happen through rigorous scientific research and testing, which is her passion.
Vercelli says she looks forward to coming to work every day. “I still manage to come to the lab every morning with a sense of anticipation. My science has never been better.”
The best science comes from “always being out of your comfort zone.” She advises her students and lab colleagues to expect failures along the way.
“It is the experiments that fail that tell you where to go,” she says. “I’m interested in problems. I never stop learning.”