A drug available in Europe called roflumilast helps ease symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), researchers report in The Lancet.

COPD is an inflammatory airway disease with progressive decline in lung function and health-related quality of life.

In an international study of more than 1,100 patients with COPD, those taking roflumilast had bigger improvements in their lung function and quality of life than those taking a fake drug (placebo).

Roflumilast is a promising candidate for treatment of the lung disease because it improved lung function and reduced exacerbations of symptoms compared with placebo, write the researchers.

The study was sponsored by Altana Pharma AG, roflumilast's maker. The company also managed the data and did all the final analyses, write the researchers.

About COPD

COPD is the No. 5 cause of death worldwide, write the researchers. They included professor Klaus Rabe, MD, of Leiden University Medical Centre in the Netherlands.

Cases of COPD are rising and treatment options are "limited," write the researchers. They note predictions that COPD -- which causes progressive worsening of breathing and destruction of the lungs -- will be the world's No. 3 cause of death by 2020.

"The disease is usually related to cigarette smoking, but other [causes], such as exposure to air pollution, exist," write Rabe and colleagues.

Treatments include therapy targeted at smoking cessation, medications to improve airway obstruction (bronchodilators), and anti-inflammatory steroid drugs.

Steroids do not reduce the progression of the disease, they write. Bronchodilators provide some symptom relief, but there is a definite unmet medical need that specifically targets inflammation associated with COPD, they add.

Read WebMD's "1 in 9 Young Adults at Risk for COPD"

New Study

Roflumilast is designed to soothe inflammation. It's part of a class of drugs called phosphodiesterase-4 inhibitors, which inhibit a particular chemical in inflammatory cells that cause progressive lung tissue destruction.

The new study was conducted in 11 countries. Participants were all at least 40 years old, had had COPD for more than a year, and were current or ex-smokers. None had asthma, lung cancer, or other lung diseases in addition to COPD.

Participants were randomly assigned to take roflumilast or the placebo orally once daily for 24 weeks. They didn't know which treatment they got.

Read WebMD's "COPD Ignored by Doctors and Patients"

Study's Results

Patients taking roflumilast had significantly bigger improvements in lung function and health-related quality of life than those taking the placebo, write the researchers.

Two daily doses of roflumilast were tested (250 or 500 milligrams). Both doses had similar quality-of-life results, the study shows.

Some COPD flare-ups ("exacerbations") happened in each group. There were fewer exacerbations with roflumilast than with the placebo. Those taking the higher dose of roflumilast had the fewest exacerbations, write the researchers.

Read WebMD's "Asthma May Raise Risk of COPD, Emphysema"

Side Effects

Diarrhea was the most common side effect associated with roflumilast. It was reported by 13 people taking the drug's low dose (2 percent), 34 patients taking the higher dose (6 percent), and none of those taking the placebo.

Nausea was the second most common side effect linked to the drug. Headaches were reported by a few people in each group (4 percent) and probably weren't due to roflumilast, write the researchers.

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Rabe, K. The Lancet, Aug. 13, 2005; vol 366: pp 563-571. News release, The Lancet.