A new type of asthma treatment may help people with hard-to-control forms of the disease breathe easier.

The results of a small study showed that treatment with bronchial thermoplasty, a procedure designed to reduce airway narrowing, significantly improved breathing in people with asthma that is uncontrolled by conventional treatments.

Bronchial thermoplasty involves delivering radio-frequency energy to the smooth muscle that lines the airway walls. The energy heats the tissue to about 149 degrees Fahrenheit. This reduces muscle mass, but doesn’t destroy or scar the muscle. With less muscle, the airway can’t narrow as much in response to irritants that often trigger asthma. Airway narrowing is a hallmark of asthma.

The results of the study appear in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

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In the study, researchers evaluated the safety and effectiveness of bronchial thermoplasty in 16 adults with mild to moderate asthma that was not adequately controlled by asthma medications.

Each participant received three, 30-minute bronchial thermoplasty sessions to treat all accessible airways in the lungs.

After two years of follow-up, the results showed the procedure was well-tolerated and side effects were minimal.

All of the asthma patients reported an increase in the number of days without symptoms as well as fewer problems with triggers that worsened their asthma.

Researchers say this is only the first study to test the new treatment and they will continue to monitor the study participants for five years.

In an editorial that accompanies the study, Elisabeth H. Bel, MD, PhD, of Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands, says the study provides a unique insight into the mechanisms of airway responsiveness in asthma.

“The ability of asthmatic airways to constrict more promptly and excessively to inhaled stimuli than is the case for normal airways is considered a key factor of the disease,” writes Bel.

“Whether bronchial thermoplasty will earn a place in the treatment of asthma remains to be determined,” says Bel. “However, this study shows the potential for a completely new approach of treating asthma and stimulates the development of new hypotheses.”

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By Jennifer Warner, reviewed by Ann Edmundson, MD

SOURCES: Cox, G. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, May 1, 2006; vol 173: pp 965-969. News release, American Thoracic Society.