Drugs already used by millions to lower cholesterol might someday have a new role: Relieving asthma and COPD.
That’s the hope of a new line of research underway at the University of California, Davis.
A study funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health is seeking to determine whether a “statin inhaler” might reduce the airway inflammation that makes breathing difficult for folks with illnesses like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Taking a statin pill has no significant effect on the airways, but “delivering statins directly to the lung via inhalation might achieve better local tissue drug levels, and therefore, better clinical results,” theorized lead investigator Amir Zeki, a professor of internal medicine who specializes in pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine at UC Davis.
This research is still in its early stages. However, if it pans out it might offer another treatment option to the more than 26.5 million Americans with asthma and the more than 16 million battling COPD.
Zeki’s team is focusing on what’s known as airway smooth muscle (ASM) — tissue which lies within each airway’s wall and helps control airflow.
The inflammation that drives asthma can trigger a tightening of smooth muscle, restricting airways. This “hyperactivity” of smooth muscle also plays a role in COPD, the researchers explained.
Treatments such as asthma bronchodilators already target receptors on specific smooth muscle cells, triggering a healthy relaxation of the muscle. But these meds aren’t always effective.
“Despite their widespread use, current inhaler therapies that treat asthma and COPD remain inadequate in controlling symptoms for many patients, especially those with moderate to severe disease,” Zeki said in a UC Davis news release. “For this reason, we need novel inhaled medications to treat obstructive airway diseases such as asthma via mechanisms of action different from current standard-of-care therapies.”
That’s where the anti-inflammatory properties of statins come in. Studies in the lab have shown that these drugs enhance the cellular function of airways in various ways.
“To our surprise, we have discovered that statins also work as a bronchodilator, in which they directly relax ASM tissue, leading to the opening of airways,” Zeki said.
Statins taken as pills have not shown any benefit against airway disease, however. That’s because the liver breaks down drugs taken as pills, minimizing any benefit that might accrue by the time the drug makes it to an airway.
Using an inhaler to deliver a statin directly to the airway bypasses that issue.
“This allows us to deliver significantly lower doses to the airways with hopefully greater potency,” Zeki said.
Phase 1 and phase 2 clinical trials are planned in which patients with asthma and COPD will try out statin inhalers for safety and effectiveness.
“We have successfully developed a proprietary formulation that is available and ready for first-in-human testing,” Zeki said. “Our aim is to begin with asthma, but we also have plans to investigate COPD as well.”
Find out more about asthma at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
SOURCE: University of California, Davis, news release, Jan. 4, 2024
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