March 2nd, 2010
11:50 AM ET

Asthma advances

By Saundra Young
CNN Medical Senior Producer

23 million Americans, 7 million of those children, struggle with asthma.  The statistics are sobering.  Every day in the United States, 30,000 people have an asthma attack. 40,000 miss school or work because of the disease, emergency rooms see 5,000 asthma patients; 1,000 of those will actually be admitted to the hospital and 11 people will die.  Every day.  It's one of the country's most common, and most costly diseases.

During an asthma attack the smooth muscle around your trachea, or windpipe, constricts, squeezing down and causing shortness of breath and chest tightness.  There is no cure for this chronic disease, and for those who suffer with severe, persistent, debilitating asthma, quality of life can be downright miserable.  Treatment has been limited to medications that are often short lived and can potentially have side effects.

But according to Dr. Mario Castro, a pulmonologist at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri,  a breakthrough is close at hand.  Castro led a clinical trial testing the first ever non-drug treatment for severe asthma.  It's called bronchial thermoplasty and he contends that it actually prevents attacks (watch Dr. Sanjay Gupta's report here).

"What bronchial thermoplasty does is it allows us to go down into your windpipes, into your bronchial tubes and deliver a very controlled energy, a controlled heat to the lining of your windpipe," Castro said, "What it results in is that the muscle, the smooth muscle around your windpipe is decreased in the amount and size."

There are three treatments, three weeks apart and no overnight hospital stay.  Nearly 300 patients participated in the largest trial of it's kind here in the United States.  Those who actually got the treatment logged 84 percent fewer visits to the emergency room than the patients who didn't. 

Jenny and Michael McLeland, severe asthma sufferers their entire lives, were both got the thermoplasty.

Both of us experienced a huge change in our asthma symptoms." Jenny said. "The summer following our treatments we did RAGBRAI, which is a weeklong bike ride up in Iowa.  So it involved biking about 550 miles and camping over an entire weekend.  Prior to the treatment I couldn't sleep outside. I couldn't sit in the grass without getting wheezy.  So to be able to make it through an entire week with no problems was just phenomenal."

 Two and a half years after the treatment, Jenny hasn't had to make a single visit to the ER.  And Michael says he can't put a price on his new-found quality of life.

"I feel like I'm 18, 19 years old and doing anything, it feels like I can do anything I want to now.  I've done things that I didn't think I would be able to do. The quality of life– the expenses I don't have to worry about anymore, just kind of the emergency room costs and the physician costs and the medication was expensive."

Dr. Norman Edelman, chief medical officer of the American Lung Association, says anything new that will help these patients is an important advance.

"It's a new concept. Nobody up until now has thought of dealing with asthma by changing the anatomy of the lung.'  But Edelman cautions there is a downside.  "It's a complex procedure.  Local physicians who treat asthma will not be ready to use the technique."

An FDA advisory committee has already recommended approval on several conditions—such as doctors getting the proper training and requiring that the procedure be performed only at a facility with full resuscitation equipment.  The FDA is still  considering the recommendation.

So, if you're on the highest dose of your asthma medication and feeling like there's no where else to go, help could be just around the corner.

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.