Navigate Up

UPMC/University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences
For Journalists

Want to Make an Appointment or Need Patient Information?

Contact UPMC at
1-800-533-UPMC (8762).

Go to Find a Doctor to search for a UPMC doctor.​

Late-Onset Asthma in Obese Individuals Could Be Due to an Amino Acid Imbalance, Says Pitt-Led Study

PITTSBURGH, March 18 – Increased respiratory symptoms and loss of asthma–related quality of life in obese people, especially those who develop asthma later in life, may be due to an imbalance in the metabolism of arginine rather than allergy or airway inflammation, according to a study led by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. The findings, published recently in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, have prompted a pilot project at the University of Pittsburgh Asthma Institute at UPMC and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine to see if patients’ symptoms improve if they supplement their diet with the deficient agent.
The relationship between asthma and obesity is in many ways a conundrum, said the study’s lead author, Fernando Holguin, M.D., M.P.H., associate  professor, Division of Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care Medicine (PACCM), Pitt School of Medicine, and co-director of the Asthma Institute. A person who has severe asthma may require frequent steroid treatments and limit his or her activity, resulting in weight gain; in others, obesity seems to aggravate or even initiate asthma symptoms.
“Obese asthma patients tend to have worse symptoms, more frequent episodes of breathing difficulty, and don’t respond as readily to conventional treatments,” Dr. Holguin noted. “Our study supports the premise that asthma is a multifactorial condition that can be triggered by a variety of underlying problems.”  Interventions to improve clinically meaningful outcomes may need to be personalized to the type of asthmatic condition that patient has.
Patients who are obese and develop asthma as adults tend to exhale lower levels of nitric oxide (NO), a compound that relaxes blood vessels and is thought to play a similar role in airways.The researchers collected blood samples from 155 adults, nearly half of whom had severe asthma and half were obese. The team found that compared to early-onset asthma patients, late-onset obese asthma patients had lower plasma levels of the amino acid arginine and higher levels of an arginine metabolite called ADMA, which interferes with NO production.
“In healthy people, a balance is maintained between arginine and ADMA ensuring normal levels of airway NO,” Dr. Holguin said. “But in obese, adult-onset asthma, the lower arginine and higher ADMA reduces airway NO levels. This finding is promising because it suggests that increasing arginine could restore NO levels and its positive effect on airways.” This might translate into patients having less wheezing and shortness of breath.
Arginine is readily available over the counter as a dietary supplement, but it is rapidly metabolized by the body and reduces its practicality as a treatment, he said. Another supplement called citrulline is known to enhance arginine production, and can be taken in high doses without ill effects.
“We will soon begin a small pilot study to see whether citrulline supplements can help alleviate symptoms in patients who fit this profile of late-onset asthma, obesity and decreased exhaled NO,” Dr. Holguin said.
According to PACCM chief Mark Gladwin, M.D., “This research highlights that not everyone with asthma is the same, so our investigators are exploring treatments that work in different ways for specific patients, a concept that we refer to as precision medicine.”
Co-authors of the paper include senior author Sally Wenzel, M.D., of PACCM and the director of the Asthma Institute, and others from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine; as well as researchers from the Cleveland Clinic, Wake Forest University, University of Wisconsin, University of Texas, Washington University, Emory University, University of Virginia, Harvard University, and Imperial College London. The project was funded by National Institutes of Health grants HL-69174, HL081064, and HL69170.

UPMC | Affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences Supplemental content provided by Healthwise, Incorporated. To learn more, visit

For help in finding a doctor or health service that suits your needs, call the UPMC Referral Service at 412-647-UPMC (8762) or 1-800-533-UPMC (8762). Select option 1.

UPMC is an equal opportunity employer. UPMC policy prohibits discrimination or harassment on the basis of race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, age, sex, genetics, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, familial status, disability, veteran status, or any other legally protected group status. Further, UPMC will continue to support and promote equal employment opportunity, human dignity, and racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity. This policy applies to admissions, employment, and access to and treatment in UPMC programs and activities. This commitment is made by UPMC in accordance with federal, state, and/or local laws and regulations.

Medical information made available on is not intended to be used as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should not rely entirely on this information for your health care needs. Ask your own doctor or health care provider any specific medical questions that you have. Further, is not a tool to be used in the case of an emergency. If an emergency arises, you should seek appropriate emergency medical services.

Pittsburgh, PA, USA |