May 2011

Drug Helps Relieve Asthma in Young People

In a new study, adding a drug called omalizumab to asthma treatment nearly eliminated seasonal surges in asthma attacks among young city dwellers. The finding could help doctors combat this common disease.

About 18 million adults and 7 million children nationwide have asthma. Symptoms include wheezing, coughing, chest tightness and shortness of breath. These often get worse in the spring and fall, when pollen in the air can cause allergic reactions that make symptoms worse. Viruses, such as those that cause the common cold, can also make symptoms worse.

Patients usually improve when asthma treatments are based on NIH guidelines. But some asthma symptoms still require a trip to the hospital. Inner-city children and adolescents are at especially high risk.

To see how asthma outcomes might be improved, NIH-funded scientists studied 419 young people, ages 6 to 20, from the inner city. All were told to continue taking their standard asthma therapy. About half were given an additional drug called omalizumab. This drug blocks a molecule involved in allergic reactions that lead to trouble breathing.

Patients taking omalizumab had an overall 25% reduction in days with symptoms and a 30% decline in asthma attacks compared with those not taking the drug. Omalizumab also led to a 75% drop in hospitalizations.

“The spike in asthma attacks in the fall, which is associated with colds and other viral airway infections, disappeared in the kids in the omalizumab group,” says lead scientist Dr. William Busse of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The researchers now plan to test the effectiveness of the drug when given only during peak asthma seasons.