Using Biologics to Treat Severe and Eosinophilic Asthma
Most people who have mild to moderate asthma are able to achieve asthma control and prevent symptoms through the use of a daily inhaled steroid. When asthma attacks do occur, quick-relief medicines are used to treat asthma symptoms and re-establish control. Unfortunately, for about 5 to 10% of the asthma population, asthma is more severe and often resistant to steroid treatment.
Some people with this severe form of the disease have a unique type of asthma called eosinophilic asthma (EA for short). The good news is that in the past decade or two, a new form of asthma medication called biologics has been developed. Biologics have shown promising results for people with severe asthma, including those who have EA.
Quick summary about eosinophilic asthma
You can read more about this type of asthma in other places on this site, but here's a quick review.1
- Severe asthma, marked by high levels of white blood cells called eosinophils, which are part of your body's natural immune system.
- Eosinophils cause inflammation and swelling
- EA tends to occur more in adults, rather than children and is not strongly associated with allergies, as with most asthma
- Generally treated initially with high doses of inhaled and oral steroids, but often unsuccessfully
The symptoms of EA are the same as allergic asthma, namely:
New hope for severe and eosinophilic asthma through biologics
Fortunately, for people with severe asthma who have not responded well to inhaled steroids, short-acting beta-agonists, and other standard asthma treatments, there is an alternative. Over the past 10 to 20 years, scientists have developed a newer class of drugs that attack asthma at the cellular level, rather than just treating symptoms.
Biologics are man-made proteins designed to prevent inflammation by acting on specific substances in your body's immune system.1 These so-called biologics for asthma can work in different ways:
- They can target an immune system protein called immunoglobulin E (IgE), which is the cause of some cases of severe steroid-resistant asthma
- Others can target eosinophils.
- One biologic targets key proteins that contribute to the inflammation in the airways.
Omalizumab (brand name Xolair)
Omalizumab is the biologic that targets IgE. It's an antibody that blocks IgE receptors on your immune cells. In turn, this prevents them from releasing chemicals that cause inflammation.2,3
You'll get this drug in your doctor's office. It's given as an injection once or twice a month, depending on your treatment plan. It can be used for anyone over the age of 6, but generally only in those who have proven abnormally high IgE levels.2,3
It's considered safe and effective for use and has very few side effects.
Mepolizumab (Nucala), reslizumab (Cinqair), and benralizumab (Fasenra)
Mepolizumab (Nucala), reslizumab (Cinqair), and benralizumab (Fasenra) are anti-eosinophilic antibodies. They are specifically designed for people with EA. Eosinophils can be helpful in fighting disease. But sometimes for unknown reasons, their numbers are too high, and when that happens in the airways, it can result in inflammation and swelling.2,3
These 3 drugs act to reduce the number of eosinophils in the blood and sputum. Each drug works in slightly different ways, but can greatly improve inflammation and the resulting asthma symptoms. They can be given intravenously or as an injection every one to two months.
- Mepolizumab and benralizumab can both be given to anyone age 12 and older
- Reslizumab is only approved for adults age 18 and older
As with omalizumab, these medications are considered safe and effective for most people in the approved age groups, with very few side effects.
In summary: Biologics for asthma
Biologics are not necessarily the answer for every person with severe asthma, whether the allergic type or EA. However, they can offer hope for better asthma control. In some cases, they may be combined with more traditional asthma treatments. In others, they may be used more as primary treatment.4
Talk to your doctor if you're having ongoing problems with asthma control and asthma attacks are interfering with your health and quality of life. Together you can decide if biologics might be right for you.
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