Thursday, October 21, 1999 Published at 20:40 GMT 21:40 UK
Killer lung disease breakthrough
Pulmonary fibrosis scars the lung tissue
The progress of a killer lung disease can be significantly slowed by a combination of two drugs, researchers have found.
However, some experts have said more research is needed before it is clear how many patients could benefit from the breakthrough.
Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis is a disorder of the lung tissues involved in exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide. It leads to scarring and thickening of the lung tissue and kills half its victims within five years.
There is no known cure for the disease, and traditional treatment using steroids has proved ineffective.
But Austrian researchers have found combining the steroid treatment with the drug Interferon gamma-1b can slow up progression of the disease significantly.
The researchers, who report their findings in the New England Journal of Medicine, tested the combination on 18 volunteers.
They found that patients who received the steroid alone suffered a reduction of 4% in their lung capacity, whereas those who received a combination of the two drugs saw their lung capacity actually increase by 9%.
After 12 months of treatment with interferon, only one of the three patients who needed supplemental oxygen at the start of the study still required it.
For the nine volunteers who only received the steroid (prednisolone), two needed supplemental oxygen at the beginning of the study and the number doubled by the end of the treatments, which lasted for one year.
More research required
The researchers warned that the people they studied were not typical of most who suffer from the lung illness and that a larger study is needed to confirm the results.
First, the volunteers were enrolled in the study only after treatment with high doses of prednisolone failed to provide any benefit.
Second, all of the volunteers were alive three years after the inauguration of the study, an unusually high survival rate among people with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.
The interferon treatments had some side effects, producing fever and chills in everyone.
Three of the nine recipients reported bone and muscle pain, and two developed brief, but severe, headaches.
The side-effects lingered for up to three months.
In an editorial accompanying the research, the editorial, Professor RM duBois of Royal Brompton Hospital in London, said that for a disease that has no truly effective treatment and a high death rate, "remarkably little is known" about the illness.
He said: "The promising preliminary data should be the catalyst for a long-overdue focus on improving therapy for patients with this most deadly of the diffuse lung diseases."
However, Professor duBois warned that further larger-scale research was needed to test the impact on patients with most serious variant of the disease.