Diagnosing allergies in children with a new algorithm

Based on DNA from nasal cells taken with a nasal swab, allergies can be detected with the help of the new algorithm. It is enough to look at just three places in the DNA for this. This new algorithm was developed during research conducted by the UMCG, the Medical University of Hannover (MHH) and the artificial intelligence company MIcompany. As described in a publication in Nature Communications, this research contributes to a better understanding of these complex diseases. In the future, this will also provide opportunities for innovative diagnostics.

Allergies affect quality of life

Over the past 50 years, the number of patients suffering from allergic diseases has increased at a rapid pace. So strong that researchers predict that even half of Europe’s population will suffer from it by 2030. This means that conditions such as asthma, eczema or hay fever, as very common childhood diseases, place a huge burden on patients’ quality of life and the healthcare system.

Although it is known that genetic and environmental factors play a major role in its development, the exact mechanisms that contribute to this are still unknown. This fact confirms that there is currently no permanent cure available for a chronic disease.

Diagnosing allergies in young children

The need to predict the risk of developing allergic diseases is especially great for young children who have not yet entered school. However, it is difficult to identify in children. Or as Professor Gerard Koppelmann, pediatric pulmonologist at the UMCG and initiator of the project says: “Young children often have brief illnesses whose symptoms can resemble an allergic condition, such as bouts of shortness of breath or frequent colds. Chronic allergic disease is therefore difficult to diagnose.” The algorithm provides additional insight to reach a better diagnosis.

Three DNA markers in nasal cells

The amount of knowledge about human DNA has doubled every seven months in the past decade. Knowledge that offers many new insights into diseases. For example, GRIAC (Groningen Research Institute for Asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) has DNA data from blood and nasal cells of participants in the National Birth Cohort.

By analyzing large-scale DNA data, researchers have found three DNA markers in nasal cells that determine the development of an allergic patient. They were able to demonstrate that these three DNA markers are associated with an inflammatory response in the cells of the nose. Based on three DNA markers, the new algorithm can calculate a risk score for allergic disease and use it to make a diagnosis.

Blood draw vs. nasal swab

As already mentioned, several methods are often used in the diagnosis of allergic diseases in children. In the case of asthma, for example, a lung function test is usually done, which is often not possible in younger children (up to six years of age). This allows the doctor to make a diagnosis based on specific symptoms, such as shortness of breath and a wheezing sound.

When it comes to diagnosing hay fever, in addition to checking for known symptoms such as the common cold and runny nose, a blood test or skin test is also performed. This blood test is particularly troublesome for young children. Kopelman therefore wants to make pediatric diagnosis more convenient and effective by developing a nasal swab test based on the three DNA markers identified in the current study.

Algorithm works fine

The new algorithm has also been found to be very useful in diagnosing children outside of Europe. This indicates that the algorithm is indeed picking up common biological cues found in other ethnic groups. This external review is the gold standard in medical research for testing whether results are reliable.

The current algorithm was developed for 16-year-olds. Koppelman continues, “Although this discovery is an important step forward in the application of AI for allergy diagnosis, we need to adapt our algorithm for a younger age group in the future.” In the future, he wants to use the algorithm to diagnose allergies in young children with a nasal swab.

Artificial intelligence in complex disorders

In 2019, UMCG and MIcompany joined forces to conduct research by applying the latest AI technologies to complex biomedical problems. Started by Gerard Kopelmann and Marnix Bogel (MIcompany co-founders), the new algorithm was developed by a joint research team as part of this collaboration.

The key to the success of this study was a combination of experience. Artificial intelligence enables researchers to analyze large and complex data sets in a new way. The resulting data is essential for reaching meaningful conclusions.

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