A host gene expression approach for identifying triggers of asthma exacerbations.


RATIONALE:Asthma exacerbations often occur due to infectious triggers, but determining whether infection is present and whether it is bacterial or viral remains clinically challenging. A diagnostic strategy that clarifies these uncertainties could enable personalized asthma treatment and mitigate antibiotic overuse. OBJECTIVES:To explore the performance of validated peripheral blood gene expression signatures in discriminating bacterial, viral, and noninfectious triggers in subjects with asthma exacerbations. METHODS:Subjects with suspected asthma exacerbations of various etiologies were retrospectively selected for peripheral blood gene expression analysis from a pool of subjects previously enrolled in emergency departments with acute respiratory illness. RT-PCR quantified 87 gene targets, selected from microarray-based studies, followed by logistic regression modeling to define bacterial, viral, or noninfectious class. The model-predicted class was compared to clinical adjudication and procalcitonin. RESULTS:Of 46 subjects enrolled, 7 were clinically adjudicated as bacterial, 18 as viral, and 21 as noninfectious. Model prediction was congruent with clinical adjudication in 15/18 viral and 13/21 noninfectious cases, but only 1/7 bacterial cases. None of the adjudicated bacterial cases had confirmatory microbiology; the precise etiology in this group was uncertain. Procalcitonin classified only one subject in the cohort as bacterial. 47.8% of subjects received antibiotics. CONCLUSIONS:Our model classified asthma exacerbations by the underlying bacterial, viral, and noninfectious host response. Compared to clinical adjudication, the majority of discordances occurred in the bacterial group, due to either imperfect adjudication or model misclassification. Bacterial infection was identified infrequently by all classification schemes, but nearly half of subjects were prescribed antibiotics. A gene expression-based approach may offer useful diagnostic information in this population and guide appropriate antibiotic use.





Published Version (Please cite this version)


Publication Info

Lydon, Emily C, Charles Bullard, Mert Aydin, Olga M Better, Anna Mazur, Bradly P Nicholson, Emily R Ko, Micah T McClain, et al. (2019). A host gene expression approach for identifying triggers of asthma exacerbations. PloS one, 14(4). p. e0214871. 10.1371/journal.pone.0214871 Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/19463.

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Emily Ray Ko

Assistant Professor of Medicine

Clinical and translational research, COVID-19 therapeutics, clinical biomarkers for infectious disease.


Micah Thomas McClain

Associate Professor of Medicine

Geoffrey Steven Ginsburg

Adjunct Professor in the Department of Medicine

Dr. Geoffrey S. Ginsburg's research interests are in the development of novel paradigms for developing and translating genomic information into medical practice and the integration of personalized medicine into health care.


Christopher Wildrick Woods

Wolfgang Joklik Distinguished Professor of Global Health

1. Emerging Infections
2. Global Health
3. Epidemiology of infectious diseases
4. Clinical microbiology and diagnostics
5. Bioterrorism Preparedness
6. Surveillance for communicable diseases
7. Antimicrobial resistance


Thomas Burke

Manager, Systems Project

Ricardo Henao

Associate Professor in Biostatistics & Bioinformatics

Ephraim Tsalik

Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of Medicine

My research at Duke has focused on understanding the dynamic between host and pathogen so as to discover and develop host-response markers that can diagnose and predict health and disease.  This new and evolving approach to diagnosing illness has the potential to significantly impact individual as well as public health considering the rise of antibiotic resistance.

With any potential infectious disease diagnosis, it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine at the time of presentation what the underlying cause of illness is.  For example, acute respiratory illness is among the most frequent reasons for patients to seek care. These symptoms, such as cough, sore throat, and fever may be due to a bacterial infection, viral infection, both, or a non-infectious condition such as asthma or allergies.  Given the difficulties in making the diagnosis, most patients are inappropriately given antibacterials.  However, each of these etiologies (bacteria, virus, or something else entirely) leaves a fingerprint embedded in the host’s response. We are very interested in finding those fingerprints and exploiting them to generate new approaches to understand, diagnose, and manage disease.

These principles also apply to sepsis, defined as life-threatening organ dysfunction caused by a dysregulated host response to infection. Just as with acute respiratory illness, it is often difficult to identify whether infection is responsible for a patient’s critical illness.  We have embarked on a number of research programs that aim to better identify sepsis; define sepsis subtypes that can be used to guide future clinical research; and to better predict sepsis outcomes.  These efforts have focused on many systems biology modalities including transcriptomics, miRNA, metabolomics, and proteomics.  Consequently, our Data Science team has utilized these highly complex data to develop new statistical methods, furthering both the clinical and statistical research communities.

These examples are just a small sampling of the breadth of research Dr. Tsalik and his colleagues have conducted.  

In April 2022, Dr. Tsalik has joined Danaher Diagnostics as the VP and Chief Scientific Officer for Infectious Disease, where he is applying this experience in biomarkers and diagnostics to shape the future of diagnostics in ID. 

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