For people who suffer from severe asthma, sometimes the cause of an attack is obvious — pollen in a field of blooming flowers, or dander from a pack of pets — but that’s not always the case. With the help of willing asthmatics, David Van Sickle, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is looking for a better way to hunt down triggers. His team of students will use global positioning technology, embedded in patients’ inhalers, to locate triggers around campus, hopefully uncovering previously unknown environmental factors for the lung disease. The US government’s Centers for Disease Control is backing the study.

Van Sickle tells the University of Wisconsin News that known risk factors  don’t fully explain asthma’s prevalence. An example: one outbreak of asthma attacks in Barcelona throughout the 1980s baffled scientists who were looking for all the usual triggers. But after eight years of reports from the victims, they traced the source to the city’s waterfront. Soybean dust — once unsuspected as a trigger — was ultimately flagged as a serious threat to asthmatics. Obviously, with the help of GPS technology, researchers can get a faster handle on what’s making people sick.

Van Sickle has another asthma project in the pipe, too. Another group of his students are trying to build a cheaper spirometer, which can detect asthma and other diseases by measuring lung health. These devices typically sell for $1,500 a piece, and the students are trying to whittle the cost down to $50 with an open source mentality; their designs are available to anyone online.

Open Source and GPS fighting asthma? Sounds like a breath of fresh air. [U of Wisconsin via Crave, Inhaler Image]