Treatment brings hope to serious asthma sufferers

March 4, 2010 3:15:35 PM PST
Asthma attacks send 5,000 people a day to the emergency room. And an average of 11 die every day from asthma. But a new treatment is bringing relief to asthma sufferers.

Most of the people who suffer from asthma are able to have good control over it through carefull monitoring of their environment or though medication. But for a small percentage, control can be extremely difficult.

The treatment is not yet available and has not yet been approved by the FDA, although an advisory committee has already recommended its approval. If indeed it is approved, it may offers a new option, but would need very careful consideration because there are some risks.

Ahma, for some, can be extreme and very serious. Nearly 4,000 die yearly because of the illness.

Jenny McLeland and husband Michael have battled severe asthma since childhood.

"I was on the highest dose of a cortical steroid maintenance inhaler, as well as have to use my rescue inhaler at least two to three times a day," Jenny said.

"Even with medication and stuff like that, I was in and out of the emergency room a couple times a month," Michael added.

So the couple took part in a study looking at a different treatment for severe asthma.

The treatment uses heat, applied through a catheter, into the windpipe and into the bronchial tubes. The heat is applied to the lining of the windpipe.

The treatments actually worsen asthma symptoms at first, but then patients got better. They became either much improved or improved completely. Treated patients saw their attacks decrease by one third.

Dr. Mario Castro, a paid consultant for the company supplying the machinery, led the study.

"It also resulted in less emergency room visits, less hospitalizations, less days missed from work or school," said Dr. Castro, of the Washington University School of Medicine.

"There's very little that we have to offer people with severe debilitating asthma," the American Lung Association's Dr. Norman Edelman said. "These people's lives are severely disrupted by their asthma. So anything new that will help these people is an important advance."

But it doesn't come without risks.

"It's a complex procedure," Dr. Edelman said. "Local physicians who treat asthma will not be ready to use the technique."

An FDA advisory committee has recommended approving the device on the condition that doctors who use it get appropriate training and then only perform the procedure in a facility equipped with advanced life support measures.

They also recommended a patient registry to track patients to see how they do long term.

The long-term effect or how long any advantages last are still unknown. About 10 percent of asthma sufferers have the severe type that requires agressive management. One expert said that if this is approved, he would recommend it only for patients who, despite aggressive treatment of their asthma, were suffering severe depression and loss of quality of life. Since it is not available yet, the cost of the treatment is unknown.

The clinical trials with the 300 patients took place in six different countries. One third of the patients got a placebo procedure. They went through the same motions, but didn't really get heat. They also had some improvements of symptoms.