With a zap, new treatment opens airways of severe asthmatics
WASHINGTON — People with severe asthma are getting a radically different treatment option: a way to snake a wire inside their lungs and melt off some of the tissue that squeezes their airways shut.
Bronchial thermoplasty isn’t for everyone, just a subset who wheeze despite today’s best medications. It’s neither a cure nor without risk.
But the Alair system, rolling out this month, offers the first method of physically altering spasm-prone airways.
“It does seem to improve your ability to live with your asthma,’’ said Dr. Michael Silver of Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center, who is not involved with Alair’s manufacturer but has monitored its development. “I certainly have moved from skeptical to, ‘it has a niche.’ ’’
“It’s a very novel, very innovative treatment’’ — but only for the right patient, agreed Dr. William Calhoun of the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, a spokesman for the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.
About 22 million Americans have asthma, and medications offer good control for many patients. Still, asthma kills about 4,000 people a year and hospitalizes at least half a million. Up to 15 percent of patients have severe disease, experiencing frequent attacks despite daily medication — and often needing emergency-room care.
“It’s like slow suffocation,’’ says John Rapp, 59, of Arlington, Va., who wound up in the ER four or five times a year before participating in a study of bronchial thermoplasty.
California-based Asthmatx Inc. estimates its Alair system, which the Food and Drug Administration approved last week, could target up to 2 million adults like Rapp.
Asthma is a two-pronged disease. Inflammation inside the lung’s branch-like airways narrows those channels to make breathing difficult. The airways also contain a layer of muscle tissue that spasms when something irritates the lungs. That so-called smooth muscle can double in thickness with repeated attacks. Bronchial thermoplasty beams radiofrequency waves to heat up that muscle layer, resulting in shrinkage so that airways can’t constrict as badly during an attack.
Risks include temporarily worse asthma, a partially collapsed lung, and coughing up blood.