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Off-patent cancer drug holds promise for severe asthma treatment

Published on 18/05/17 at 10:59am

Researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School have conducted a small-scale study into the prospect of using imatinib for severe asthma treatment, with the aim of targeting mast cells. These particular cells are thought to be significant in the cause of asthma symptoms, with mast cells being linked to the airways secretion of mucus and to sensitivity to allergens or pollutants.

With this in mind, researchers targeted the mast cells through the use of imatinib, otherwise known as Glivec or Gleevec, as the cancer treatment specifically targets mast cells. The proof-of-principle study was conducted with 62 patients who had severe and difficult-to-treat asthma.

The results of the trial were positive, with airway responsiveness decreasing by 50% in those treated with imatinib at three months, continuing at similar levels through to six months. As well as this, researchers observed that the cancer treatment also reduced serum tryptase, one of the markers of mast cell activation; additionally, patients experiencing a relaxation and opening of the airways.

"There are several new drugs for severe asthma that target the more allergic, or eosinophilic, type of severe asthma. If confirmed, our finding -- that targeting mast cells is effective for patients who do not have eosinophilic-type asthma -- is particularly exciting because this group of patients, which make up about 40 percent of patients with severe asthma, have no current treatment options to control their disease", said Elliot Israel, a physician and researcher in the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at BWH, and senior author of the paper.

The cancer drug has been available to research with because the drug is now off-patent. This means that several generic versions have already been produced – reducing the price of the treatment.

However, Israel signalled that larger-scale studies need to be performed to confirm results beyond the small-scale, 62 set of participants. He suggested that, as follow-up drugs are already being developed to imatinib, there is room for a branded drug to enter the market as an asthma treatment based on his research. It is widely recognised that funding for such large scale studies, as is required to further this research, is usually dependent on a pharmaceutical company carrying the baton or massive sums of government or charity donations.

Ben Hargreaves

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