Asthma is a common disease with profoundly variable natural history and patient morbidity. Heterogeneity has long been appreciated, and much work has focused on identifying subgroups of patients with similar pathobiological underpinnings. Previous studies of the Severe Asthma Research Program (SARP) cohort linked gene expression changes to specific clinical and physiologic characteristics. While invaluable for hypothesis generation, these data include extensive candidate gene lists that complicate target identification and validation. In this analysis, we performed unsupervised clustering of the SARP cohort using bronchial epithelial cell gene expression data, identifying a transcriptional signature for participants suffering exacerbation-prone asthma with impaired lung function. Clinically, participants in this asthma cluster exhibited a mixed inflammatory process and bore transcriptional hallmarks of NF-κB and activator protein 1 (AP-1) activation, despite high corticosteroid exposure. Using supervised machine learning, we found a set of 31 genes that classified patients with high accuracy and could reconstitute clinical and transcriptional hallmarks of our patient clustering in an external cohort. Of these genes, IL18R1 (IL-18 Receptor 1) negatively associated with lung function and was highly expressed in the most severe patient cluster. We validated IL18R1 protein expression in lung tissue and identified downstream NF-κB and AP-1 activity, supporting IL-18 signaling in severe asthma pathogenesis and highlighting this approach for gene and pathway discovery.
Matthew J. Camiolo, Xiuxia Zhou, Qi Wei, Humberto E. Trejo Bittar, Naftali Kaminski, Anuradha Ray, Sally E. Wenzel