Asthma affects one in three people in Ontario, and a new study could be a game changer for these patients.

New MRI lung imaging of patients suffering from asthma, is painting a picture that could change the way the disease is treated.

“We have patient inhale hyperpolarized three gas and then that allows us to see exactly where the air they breathe in, travels to their lungs,” says PhD candidate and study author Rachel Eddy.

Eddy says 11 patients with mild to moderate asthma were studied over a six-year period, but what made it even more interesting for researchers was that two of the patients were non-identical twins with life-long asthma.

“We looked at them both side-by-side one day and we were like, they have the exact same ventilation defects," which meant that contrary to popular medical belief asthma patterns may be genetic.

“For a very long time the understanding of asthma was that it was random, so these regions of ventilation defects that were impacting the entire lung may come and go over time and may come and go into the same places.”

After studying the group of patients over the six years, including the twin patients, researchers say it appears defects in the lungs of asthmatic patients are like fingerprints - they have a unique pattern and maintain that pattern over time.

“Up until this point we have had very crude measures on how to assess patients. 'How are you feeling? Are you short of breath?' Then we have typical features of lung function that we would use to assess patients severity and how well they are controlled,” says Dr. Corey Yamashita, associate professor at the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry.

The discovery also means researchers have a better understanding of patients who transition from asthma to COPD, otherwise known as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.

“Patients who smoke and who suffer from COPD have lung function that never normalizes so they live with their symptoms on a day to day basis and struggle with things like shortness of breath and cough.”

Yamashita says the team hopes to use these recent findings as a tool to diagnose and treat both patients with asthma and those with COPD.

“This is starting to give us a sense of an approach to using personalized medicine. We see that patients have probably different thumbprints of the disease and we are starting to see therapeutically as well, patients being treated in a unique fashion that’s patient-specific rather than having a specific therapy that we treat the whole diverse population with.”