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Statins good for asthma too

March 15, 2009 | 11:23 am

Chalk up one more benefit for statins, the cholesterol-lowering drugs that appear to have a variety of other actions in the body as well. The latest finding is that the drugs can reduce emergency room visits and hospitalizations in asthma patients by a third, apparently by reducing the inflammation that triggers spasms in the breathing passages.

Asthma, which affects as many as 20 million Americans, is caused by inflammation and swelling of the airways and constriction of the muscles of the bronchial passages. It is normally controlled with inhaled corticosteroids, but more severe cases may also require short-acting beta-agonists or rescue medicines, such as Albuterol and Proventil; long-acting beta-agonists, such as Serevent, whose actions can persist for 12 hours or longer; and leukotriene modifiers, such as Singulair, which suppress attacks but don't help once they have begun.

Despite such therapies, there are about half a million hospitalizations and 217,000 emergency room visits for asthma each year, with total hospital costs of about $4.7 billion, accordng to Medco Health Solutions Inc., which provides prescription services for many health insurers.

Statins have long been known to reduce inflammation in addition to their cholesterol-lowering properties. A recent major study showed that the drugs could reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke in people with normal cholesterol levels by reducing levels of C-reactive protein, an inflammation marker that is linked to heart problems.

To explore a potential benefit in asthma, researchers from Medco and Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston data-mined Medco's records on more than 12 million patients. They identified 6,574 patients who received their first prescription for an inahled corticosteroid in 2006, then monitored their progress for 12 months. All the patients were over 18, with an average age of 61.

Pharmacologist Eric Stanek of Medco reported Saturday at a Washington meeting of the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology that 29.4% of patients receiving only asthma drugs were hospitalized or had an ER visit during the 12 months of the study, compared with 20.5% of those taking asthma medications plus statins prescribed for other indications. Age, gender and the identity of the asthma medications did not change the findings, he said.

The study was funded by Medco, which is seeking ways to reduce healthcare costs, such as by reducing hsopitalizations. Until the study is replicated, physicians should not prescribe the drugs directly for asthma, said Dr. Robert Epstein, Medco's chief medical officer. But if patients have another medical condition for which statins are appropriate, it couldn't hurt.

-- Thomas H. Maugh II