Over the last decades, allergic diseases have increased to epidemic proportions in Canada. Asthma, for example, has seen rising numbers since the 1970s, with currently 3.8 million people over the age of one living with asthma. What are the factors driving this increase? And how does our genetic makeup interact with the numerous environmental factors that play a role in the development of chronic diseases?
These are some of the questions Dr. Allan Becker, professor and head of the Section of Allergy and Clinical Immunology in the Department of Pediatrics and Child Health at the University of Manitoba, is working to illuminate.
“We believe that chronic diseases are driven by gene-environment interactions,” he says. “It’s now apparent that chronic non-communicable diseases, such as asthma and allergies, diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease, are increasing broadly. The reason asthma and allergies have figured prominently among them is because they are the earliest to develop – in childhood.”
An internationally recognized leader in pediatric allergy and asthma research, care and education, Dr. Becker is especially interested in understanding what is happening in early life and how outcomes for families at risk can be improved.
“Our mission encompasses understanding the importance of early life events, preventing the development of allergies and asthma and helping children and families manage the disease,” says Dr. Becker. “We know you can’t pick your parents, but you can influence your environment to a certain degree – and we are learning more and more about the factors that can play a role in the development of chronic disease.”
We believe that chronic diseases are driven by gene-environment interactions.— Dr. Allan Becker Professor and head of the Section of Allergy and Clinical Immunology in the Department of Pediatrics and Child Health at the University of Manitoba
For asthma and allergies, there is a wide spectrum of factors to consider, from common inhaled allergens, such as dust mites or pollens, to foods or other environmental exposures such as tobacco smoke or traffic-related air pollution. Exposure to chemicals, which could be anything from non-stick cookware to volatile organic compounds, can also play a role along with other health determinants like stress, says Dr. Becker. “We have to consider how stress and other psychosocial aspects shape how our immune system functions and influence whether our genes are expressed or not.”
Such complexity requires multidisciplinary collaboration, he says. “As a clinician scientist, I’ve been fortunate to help bring together researchers from different fields to work toward a common goal.” Dr. Becker adds that research needs support at every level: from clinicians and scientists to institutions and funding agencies.
The aim is to translate research into tools for health-care professionals and children and families, says Dr. Becker. As a founding member of the Canadian Network for Asthma Care, he led the development of an asthma educator education program, AsthmaTrec (now known as RespTrec), which is used across Canada, and was lead author of the first Canadian Pediatric Asthma Guidelines.
“I’m also involved in the Science Committee of the Global Initiative for Asthma, which provides a strategy for guideline development for countries around the world,” he adds.
Dr. Becker is the recipient of the 2018 Dr. John M. Bowman Winnipeg Memorial Rh Institute Foundation Award. “I am enormously grateful for the recognition that comes with the award, and I am especially delighted because I had the opportunity as a medical student and pediatric trainee to work with Dr. Bowman,” says Dr. Becker. “He was an impressive individual, and much of what he taught me has shaped what I do.”
The message Dr. Becker wants to convey to Canadians is that children with asthma and allergies can live normal, active lives, which can include a full range of physical activities. “We have made great strides in understanding how asthma and allergies can be managed on a day-to-day basis,” he says. “And we continue to undertake research to prevent the development of allergies and asthma and look for cures.”
Produced by Randall Anthony Communications. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved in its creation.