- The Washington Times - Monday, May 22, 2006


In a radical experiment, doctors are snaking wires inside the lungs of asthma patients to burn off some of the tissue that blocks their ability to breathe.

Called bronchial thermoplasty, the procedure is the first attempt at a non-drug treatment for asthma. It’s not without risk. Irritating those supersensitive airways can trigger wheezing, and no one knows the long-term effects. Nor does it promise a cure. But the hope is that physically altering spasm-prone airways might one day help thousands of patients with hard-to-control asthma breathe easier.

“People still get very sick from asthma. People still die of asthma. You’d think we’d have better control, but it seems to be escalating rather than going down,” says Dr. Michael Simoff, interventional pulmonology chief at Detroit’s Henry Ford Medical Center, one of 18 U.S. hospitals, and 30 worldwide, enrolling patients in the experiment.

“We have a real potential here, I think, to influence a very common disease.”

More than 20 million Americans have asthma, and the chronic lung disease is on the rise. While medications can prevent and treat asthma attacks, the disease kills 5,000 people every year and accounts for 2 million emergency-room visits.

The thermoplasty experiment targets patients who do poorly despite multiple medications — based on evidence that overgrown muscle tissue lining air tubes inside the lungs is one of asthma’s underlying causes. Bronchial thermoplasty promises to get rid of half of that thickened muscle, in the hope that the airways will behave more normally.

Doctors sedate patients and thread a bronchoscope — a lighted catheter — through the nose or throat and into the branchlike airways that fill the lungs. A wire basket on the tip is inflated to touch the airway walls, and radio-frequency waves are beamed through those wires.

Dr. Simoff compares it to a microwave oven, which cooks meat without scorching the outer skin like a grill would. The RF waves work similarly: They appear to beam through the airway’s thin lining without scarring it, while heating smooth muscle underneath to 149 degrees — hot enough that some muscle tissue basically disintegrates.

Coughing and wheezing are common side effects for a few days, but they clear once lung irritation subsides, says Dr. Gerard Cox of Canada’s McMaster University, who reported the first study results — on 16 patients tracked for two years — this month in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

Most breathed a little bit easier on an asthma test and had more symptom-free days by three months after treatment, he reports. A second pilot study of 108 patients found similar improvements in the half given thermoplasty, researchers reported yesterday at an American Thoracic Society meeting.

Now under way is the real test, a clinical trial funded by device manufacturer Asthmatx Inc. that is enrolling at least 300 severe asthmatics. Some will get thermoplasty and some a sham procedure — the bronchoscope snaked into their lungs but not heated.

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