Background: Asthma is a clinically heterogeneous disease caused by a complex interaction between genetic susceptibility and diverse environmental factors. In common with other complex diseases the lack of a standardized scheme to evaluate the phenotypic variability poses challenges in identifying the contribution of genes and environments to disease expression. Objective: To determine the minimum number of sets of features required to characterize subjects with asthma which will be useful in identifying important genetic and environmental contributors. Methods: Probands aged 7-35 years with physician diagnosed asthma and symptomatic siblings were identified in 1022 nuclear families from 11 centres in six countries forming the Genetics of Asthma International Network. Factor analysis was used to identify distinct phenotypes from questionnaire, clinical, and laboratory data, including baseline pulmonary function, allergen skin prick test (SPT). Results: Five distinct factors were identified:(1) baseline pulmonary function measures [forced expiratory volume in 1 s (FEV1) and forced vital capacity (FVC)], (2) specific allergen sensitization by SPT, (3) self-reported allergies, (4) symptoms characteristic of rhinitis and (5) symptoms characteristic of asthma. Replication in symptomatic siblings was consistent with shared genetic and/or environmental effects, and was robust across age groups, gender, and centres. Cronbach's α ranged from 0.719 to 0.983 suggesting acceptable internal scale consistencies. Derived scales were correlated with serum IgE, methacholine PC20, age and asthma severity (interrupted sleep). IgE correlated with all three atopy-related factors, the strongest with the SPT factor whereas severity only correlated with baseline lung function, and with symptoms characteristic of rhinitis and of asthma. Conclusion: In children and adolescents with established asthma, five distinct sets of correlated patient characteristics appear to represent important aspects of the disease. Factor scores as quantitative traits may be better phenotypes in epidemiological and genetic analyses than those categories derived from the presence or absence of combinations of +ve SPTs and/or elevated IgE.
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