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Keck School breathes life into asthma treatment

New procedure provides control of chronic disease

lung with catheter
Illustration of bronchial thermoplasty catheter in lung (Courtesy of Boston Scientific)

A new procedure at Keck Medicine of USC may give people with severe, uncontrolled asthma a much-needed breath of life. The medical center is among the first in the United States to offer bronchial thermoplasty, an outpatient treatment that provides long-lasting control of the chronic disease.

USC was one of 39 participating sites in a landmark clinical trial of the Alair Bronchial Thermoplasty System that showed a 32 percent reduction in asthma attacks after treatment. Approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2010, the system is the first medical device that uses radiofrequency energy to treat severe and persistent asthma in select patients ages 18 and older.

“Patients who suffer from persistent, uncontrollable asthma have few treatment options to adequately manage their disease,” said pulmonologist Richard Barbers, professor of clinical medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and principal investigator of the clinical trial at USC. “There is no cure for the disease, but bronchial thermoplasty has been shown to improve a patient’s quality of life by reducing his or her asthma attacks and asthma-related hospitalizations and emergency room visits.”

The airways of people who have asthma can become swollen and narrowed, making breathing difficult. The Alair system, manufactured by Boston Scientific, uses mild heat to reduce the thickness of smooth muscle in the airways, improving a patient’s ability to breathe. It is a minimally invasive procedure that involves insertion of a small tube into the patient’s lungs via the nose or mouth. To benefit, patients will need to undergo three hourlong sessions over the course of two months to target different areas in the lungs. Each session is done under moderate sedation, and the patient generally returns home the same day.

In the United States, asthma affects 22 million people, accounting for 2 million emergency room visits, 500,000 hospitalizations and 4,000 deaths every year. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, managing unstable asthma consumes more than $18 billion of health care resources each year.

“Asthma is a lifelong condition that can dramatically affect a person’s quality of life,” said Scott Evans, CEO of Keck Hospital of USC and the USC Norris Cancer Hospital. “At USC, our doctors and staff are committed to finding innovative ways to restore our patients’ health. Bronchial thermoplasty is one example of that commitment, providing an option for people who have so few available to breathe comfortably.”

Bronchial thermoplasty is designed to reduce the number of severe asthma attacks on a long-term basis. The most common side effect is an expected temporary increase in the frequency and worsening of respiratory-related symptoms during treatment. The system is not recommended for asthma patients with a pacemaker, internal defibrillator or other implantable electronic device. Nor is it recommended for patients with known sensitivities to lidocaine, atropine or benzodiazepines. Patients should be stable and suitable to undergo bronchoscopy.

For more information, call (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273).

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