UAB offers new treatment for severe asthma

UAB is the first in the state to offer new procedure that uses thermal energy to help keep airways flowing freely.

A new FDA-approved treatment may bring long-term relief to more than 3 million people with severe asthma in the United States. The University of Alabama at Birmingham is the only hospital in Alabama to offer bronchial thermoplasty, a new way to improve airflow in those whose asthma is not well-controlled by inhaled corticosteroids or long-acting beta agonists.

Human_side_view_and_Airway_device_sitePatients with severe asthma have a thickening of the smooth muscle that lines the airways. When that muscle contracts, it constricts the airway and makes it difficult to breathe. For some patients, medications will keep the airway open, but patients with severe, persistent asthma can continue to have excessive constriction.

Bronchial thermoplasty employs heat, delivered by thin wires fed down the airway, to reduce the amount of excess smooth muscle in the airway. The procedure uses the Alair System, developed by Asthmatx Inc., which comprises a specially designed catheter and electrode array to deliver a precise amount of heat energy to the excess smooth muscle. The treatment is performed in three outpatient procedures, typically three weeks apart.

“By decreasing the ability of the airways to constrict, this treatment should help patients with severe asthma gain substantially better control over their disease and see a marked improvement in their quality of life.” said Mark Dransfield, M.D., associate professor in the Division of Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care Medicine and medical director of the UAB Lung Health Center.

A study in the Jan. 15, 2010, issue of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine reported that the procedure reduced asthma attacks 32 percent and emergency room visits for respiratory symptoms 84 percent. Days lost from work or school were reduced 66 percent.

The most common side-effect of bronchial thermoplasty is a temporary increase of respiratory-related symptoms, similar to those seen following most bronchoscopy procedures. The symptoms usually resolve in seven days.

The treatment is available only to patients in an FDA post-approval study, in which UAB is one of 30 participants. The procedure should be available to the general public later this year. 

The Alabama Department of Public Health says 306,000 Alabamians, or one in every 10, suffer from asthma.