Researchers have identified a new gene that increases the risk of asthma amongst the African-American population, the first gene variant found specific to asthma risk in blacks.

The gene, PYHIN1, was rarely found in Americans of European or Latin descent, leading researchers to believe this is the first asthma gene variant specific to African-Americans, found in nearly 30 percent of those with asthma.

The findings, conducted by the newly established EVE Consortium, are the first clues to finding the genetic roots of asthma, a disease that plagues African Americans more often than other racial groups.

"Asthma rates have been on the rise in recent years, with the greatest rise among African Americans," said co-funder Susan B. Shurin, M.D., acting director of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) of the National Institutes of Health.

Researchers in the study pooled together data from nine independent research groups, including nearly 6,500 patients, about half of which had asthma. The study, published in Nature Genetics, included white Americans, Latin Americans and African-Americans for the genome-wide association studies (GWAS).

GWAS is conducted by geneticists to compare data to find genetic variants to determine which groups and subgroups have elevated risks for a disease. In this case, researchers discovered a "novel" polymorphic gene solely found in African-Americans and African-Caribbeans.

"Understanding these genetic links is an important first step towards our goal of relieving the increased burden of asthma in this population," said Dr. Shurin.

Scientists at the EVE Consortium, whose main goal is to identify why groups of individuals are more susceptible to asthma, are working to research the cause of the gene variants, but suspect possible reasons to include environmental exposures or differences in genetic risk factors.

The group of researchers also found four other genes significant for asthma risk assessment: the 17q21 locus, and IL1RL1, TSLP, and IL33 genes, according to a press release. The four genes found besides PYHIN1 were important findings since they were trans-ethnic among all of the groups studied.

"We now have a really good handle on at least five genes that anyone would be comfortable saying are asthma risk loci," said Carole Ober, PhD, senior author and co-chair of the EVE Consortium.

"I think it's an exciting time in asthma genetics," she said.