People who suffer from severe asthma could be looking at a better treatment option thanks to a new drug showing promise.

Right now people with asthma can use an oral steroid, a treatment often associated with long-term side effects. The new drug may have allow patients to reduce how often the steroids are used, ultimately reducing adverse side effects.

The results of the trial were published in the New England Journal of Medicine May 22, highlighting a new medicine and antibody called Benralizumab.

The drug works by blocking the protein that brings a white blood cell called, eosinophil, into the lung.

Results found patients using Benralizumab were more than four times more likely to reduce their usage of oral steroids than those taking the placebo.

Findings also showed that patients had 70 per cent less exacerbations and 93 per cent fewer emergency room visits or hospitalizations.

The trial was led by Dr. Parameswaran Nair, McMaster University professor of medicine, and staff respirologist at St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton. 

"We wanted to see if we could help evaluate a drug that would help patients come off those steroids," said Nair.  

Nair says severe asthma sufferers using oral corticosteroids as a long-term treatment suffer in other ways due to their medication.  

"Although it's a very inexpensive and effective drug, the side effects are horrendous."

Weight gain, osteoporosis, diabetes, skin bruising, cataracts, psychosis and mood swings are all on the list of negative side effects, according to Nair.

A study for millions of asthma sufferers

Asthma affects 315 million people worldwide.

According to Nair, severe asthma affects about 10 per cent of all asthmatics in Canada.

"Of those 10 per cent of patients who required daily prednisone steroid tablets, this is a very effective treatment that would help them come off the prednisone," said Nair.

The trial was conducted from 2015 to 2016. 220 patients from 12 countries were involved.

Nair reported there were no side effects different from those on the placebo.

According to Nair, there is speculation from people who are a bit concerned whether it's a good idea to completely wipe out a blood cell.

"We have to wait for long-term studies to see if there are any consequences of not having this cell," said Nair.  

Benralizumab is not an approved medication. 

The drug is currently under evaluation by regulators in Europe, the US, Australia and Japan.

Nair isn't sure how long the evaluation process will take, but has been told the drug is likely to be available in Canada early next year.

Close to home

According to Nair, the availability of the drug is new, but the concept of removing the white blood cell is not.

"In Hamilton for about 30 years we have been managing patients with severe asthma by measuring this particular white blood cell that I talked about, eosinophil," said Nair. 

He wants people to be aware of the local contribution to the global solution this drug may offer.

"The world thinks that actually this concept is new, but for Hamilton and McMaster University here, there is a long tradition of doing this sort of research."

The phase three ZONDA trial, funded by AstraZeneca was also presented at the American Thoracic Society International Conference in Washington, D.C. last week.