New Drugs, Even a Cure for Asthma Possible
Nov. 24, 1999 (Atlanta) -- Current treatments for asthma and other allergic
disorders may be good, but one researcher thinks they can get even better --
and even foresees a day when children might get an overall allergy vaccine that
would "cure" asthma.
But, he warns, don't hold your breath. "It is very difficult to find
treatments better than the ones we have now because you are competing with
inhaled steroids," says Peter Barnes, DM, DSc, of the National Heart &
Lung Institute at Imperial College in London. "They are fairly safe to use
and fairly cheap. New drugs would have to have some advantage. One advantage
could be that they could work by mouth." Inhaled steroids are used to
decrease the inflammation in the lungs that contributes to the blocked
The trouble is, developing better treatments would necessitate finding drugs
that work differently than the ones now available -- and that might mean
tinkering with the body's immune system, something Barnes concedes could be
dangerous. "Once you start interfering with fundamental immune mechanisms,
this may have long-term adverse consequences in terms of increasing the risk of
other diseases," he says.
But as Barnes outlines in the latest issue of Nature, that hasn't
stopped such research from going forward. Among the possible treatments:
anti-interleukin-5 antibodies, which are now being tested on humans. These
compounds interfere with the production of eosinophils -- white blood cells
that contribute to the airway tightening seen in asthma. Barnes says the drugs
seem to get rid of the eosinophils just fine -- the only problem is they don't
seem to do much for the symptoms of asthma.
Another possibility: anti-IgE antibodies. Barnes says people with severe
asthma seem to benefit from these compounds, which can defuse not only asthma
but more life-threatening allergic reactions as well.
There is a common goal with these compounds. "The thinking is if you
could get a drug to work on the basic molecular mechanism of allergy, then you
could actually treat asthma, hay fever, and eczema all in the same
treatment," Barnes tells WebMD. That's also the idea behind a potential
vaccine, which would, in effect, permanently "reset" the body's immune
system to keep it from overreacting. But there is a serious drawback to vaccine
development, he says: the need to test them in infants.
Barnes says it's one reason why inhalers -- steroid and airway openers --
will remain the mainstay of asthma therapy, at least for now. "But we are
talking about inhalers there," he says. "[They] obviously wouldn't
apply to treating eczema, rhinitis, and these other (allergic) things."
It's one reason why the search for an overall answer to allergic reactions goes
- Although the current treatment for asthma, inhaled steroids, is very safe
and effective, researchers are searching for even better options, including a
vaccine that could treat not only asthma, but hay fever, eczema, and
life-threatening allergic reactions.
- Researching new drugs is potentially dangerous because interfering with the
immune system can have long-term, adverse consequences.
- Two types of compounds being developed currently are anti-interleukin-5
antibodies and anti-IgE antibodies.