Vitamin D shows promise for people with severe asthma

Scientists at the MRC-Asthma UK Centre in Allergic Mechanisms of Asthma have taken further steps in their quest to uncover whether vitamin D, the ‘sunshine vitamin’, could help treat people with asthma.

Last year, the team, led by renowned scientist Professor Catherine Hawrylowicz, Professor of Immune Regulation in Allergic Diseases at the MRC-Asthma UK Centre in Allergic Mechanisms of Asthma,described how vitamin D has the potential to significantly reduce immune pathways associated with the symptoms of asthma, particularly in patients with severe asthma for whom conventional medicines don’t work

The team has now moved their research from cells to humans and undertook a ‘proof of concept’ clinical trial to test whether people with asthma might benefit from the vitamin. The results, published today in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, suggests that a combination of vitamin D plus steroid based medicines could improve lung function in people with severe forms of asthma, particularly those who have very low levels of vitamin D. 

This study marks a significant milestone for the researchers, who have spent over a decade unravelling the reasons why some people with asthma appear to be resistant to inhaled corticosteroids.

The trial involved a group of 23 people with severe asthma who were identified by the researchers as being steroid resistant. The participants were randomly allocated into two groups, one group received a placebo tablet for four weeks and the other group were given vitamin D. Two weeks into the trial both groups were also given a two week course of oral steroids in order to test whether there was any improvement in response to the vitamin. Improvements were measured primarily using lung function tests to see how well the lungs were working. The study showed that treatment with a short course of vitamin D may modestly improve responsiveness to asthma medicines, even in those participants classified as clinically steroid resistant.

Although the trial is an important step forward for asthma research, Professor Hawrylowicz emphasised the need for further work to be undertaken in order to confirm the findings. She explains:

"Proof of concept studies are designed to test whether an idea or method might work in practice, so we work with smaller numbers of clinically well-characterized patients over a relatively short period of time. As scientists we have a responsibility to the public to ensure that our findings are as robust as possible before we can make recommendations on treatment guidelines. This means that we have a little further to go before we can say for sure that vitamin D will help people with severe asthma, but these results are promising and we are encouraged by the potential impact this could have on the lives of people with asthma."

Dr Samantha Walker, Deputy Chief Executive at Asthma UK says:

"Asthma is a very complex condition which is why continued research is so crucial. Around a quarter of a million people in the UK do not respond to current treatments and are at an increased risk of hospitalisation and death. It is imperative that we find a solution for people with severe asthma to prevent life threatening attacks and we would welcome a large scale clinical trial to confirm these findings."


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