David Van Sickle, a researcher from the University of Wisconsin (UW), Madison designed a study to examine triggers of asthma attacks through the use of GPS (global positioning system).

Van Sickle, a postdoctoral fellow in the school of medicine and public health, plans to attach a GPS device to the inhalers of asthmatics as they take on the spring allergy season.

Van Sickle is working with students in biomedical engineering to map where and when environmental exposures trigger asthma symptoms that prompt them to use their rescue inhalers. Van Sickle plans to use the maps created with the GPS technology to find previously unknown causes of asthma and help doctors better monitor whether treatment is controlling symptoms and improving quality of life.

“Established risk factors for asthma do not explain its global prevalence patterns and time trends,” says Van Sickle in a news report from UW. “Studies of epidemic asthma have demonstrated that understanding the locations where asthma exacerbations occur can help identify important new exposures.”

Van Sickle uses an epidemic of severe asthma that struck Barcelona in the 1980s to back up the reasoning for his study. According to Van Sickle, on more than 20 days, emergency rooms in the city were overwhelmed with people having severe, and sometimes fatal, asthma attacks.

“Barcelona put together a group of scientists to look at the meteorology, climatology, and levels of standard air pollutants and pollens in the city, but there wasn’t anything exceptional about those days,’’ says Van Sickle in the UW news report.

Eventually doctors realized that all patients reported that their symptoms started near the waterfront where investigation showed that the port had been unloading giant heaps of soybeans from container ships.

“The victims were exposed to massive clouds of soybean dust because the appropriate filters weren’t installed in harbor silos,’’ Van Sickle says. “It took the group nearly eight years to prove, but it was the first time soybean dust had been shown to be a potent allergen.”