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Invited Commentary: Does Neonatal Hyperbilirubinemia Cause Asthma?

In an analysis of data from the US Collaborative Perinatal Project, Huang et al. (Am J Epidemiol. 2013;178(12):1691-1697) report an association between neonatal total serum bilirubin levels and childhood asthma. To consider the implications of this finding, we need to evaluate whether the association is causal. The results do not appear to be due to chance or any obvious biases. It is likely that the observed association is the result of a common cause of both hyperbilirubinemia and asthma (confounding). Polymorphisms in the glutathione S-transferase gene are a potential genetic confounder. The glutathione S-transferase M1-null phenotype has been linked to both neonatal hyperbilirubinemia and asthma in several studies. Before making any changes in practice aimed at lowering peak bilirubin levels to reduce asthma risk, it is vital to determine not only whether the association between higher bilirubin levels and asthma risk is causal, but also whether interventions to reduce peak bilirubin levels (or their duration) are associated with decreased risk of asthma (without evidence of other adverse effects). The study by Huang et al. should encourage further investigation of these questions.

Authors: Kuzniewicz MW; Wickremasinghe AC; Newman TB

Am J Epidemiol. 2013 Dec 15;178(12):1698-701. Epub 2013-10-31.

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