Study here to determine if Vitamin D eases asthma

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Jennifer Chamberlin no longer leaves home without her rescue inhaler to treat asthma she's had since 3.

The 37-year-old Kennedy woman has ended up in emergency rooms numerous times due to asthma attacks, although only once in the past year. Her regimen of three prescribed medications include a daily inhaler, the rescue inhaler and a daily steroid pill. She said she must use the rescue inhaler before exercise.

"I probably use my rescue inhaler every day," Ms. Chamberlin said, describing her condition as moderate. "I always have the rescue inhaler with me. I'm terrified to leave it behind in case of trouble. I don't want to go to the emergency room."

But Ms. Chamberlin has new hope of help from a common vitamin.

She's planning to sign up for a University of Pittsburgh Medical Center study announced Friday to help determine whether vitamin D enhances standard asthma treatments by reducing inflammation in those who have low levels of the vitamin.

"I would definitely try to be a participant and see if I quality," she said. "If I don't qualify, I'll try to take vitamin D on my own to see if it will help."

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Asthma Institute at UPMC and the School of Medicine are recruiting 50 patients, who will be among 400 selected randomly from 1,600 screened nationwide for the study. Participants must be nonsmokers, at least 18, and with an asthma diagnosis. They will be compensated. For information, call 1-866-804-5278 or visit www.asthmainstitute.pitt.edu.

The study will determine whether vitamin D in addition to the daily inhaled steroid -- the most effective treatment for asthma available today -- will help prevent worsening asthma symptoms and asthma exacerbations in people who have low levels of vitamin D in their system. It's estimated that up to 30 percent of the population has low vitamin D levels.

Vitamin D, fat soluble and naturally present in very few foods, is produced when ultraviolet rays from sunlight strike the skin and trigger vitamin D synthesis, the National Institutes of Health says. It's needed to prevent rickets in children and various problems with bone health in adults. The vitamin is being studied extensively for a wide range of other potential health advantages.

The VIDA study is supported by the AsthmaNet Grant awarded in November 2010 to the Asthma Institute, which is part of Pitt's Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care Medicine Division. AsthmaNet is funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health. The University of Pittsburgh is one of nine AsthmaNet research sites across the United States participating in this study.

Sally Wenzel, professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and director of the Asthma Institute, is leading the local portion of the national study. She said a pilot study already has shown indications that vitamin D may be beneficial to people with asthma.

"Despite how common asthma is, it remains poorly understood and, in many cases, poorly treated," Dr. Wenzel said in a news release. "The possibility that improving treatment may be as easy as taking a vitamin, which is activated in the skin by normal exposure to sunlight, is exciting."

One theory is that vitamin D reduces inflammation, reducing symptoms and allowing people with asthma to function with fewer prescribed medications. Dr. Wenzel said patients chosen for the study will receive either 2000 international units of vitamin D -- several times the current recommended daily dose of 600 IUs -- or a placebo, such as a harmless sugar pill, for comparison.

"One pilot study was very suggestive that vitamin D improved the response to inhaled coitosteroids," which is a recommended daily treatment for many with asthma.

One goal, she said, is to see whether vitamin D can reduce reliance on the rescue inhaler of Albuterol, a bronchodilator that opens up the airways for people with lung problems. In addition, the study will determine whether asthma patients are able to rely on lower doses of inhaled steroids and require fewer treatments courses of prednisone, a steroid taken by mouth for more severe asthma attacks. Higher doses of inhaled steroids and any use of prednisone can thin bones and increase the risk of cataracts and glaucoma, Dr. Wenzel said.

All participants will be screened for their vitamin D level. Once participants with low vitamin D levels are selected, the trial will take 36 weeks, with each patient participating in 10 visits for monitoring, lung-function tests, an asthma quality of life evaluation along with various other health tests. Researchers also will document medical history including the number of asthma attacks the person has experienced.

"Obviously we do trials because there is a reasonable chance it will work," Dr. Wenzel said. "We would not spend multiple millions of dollars if there were no hope it would work. Still, it's not a slam dunk."

The Asthma Institute also will offer free breathing tests for asthma from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. May 3, on the seventh-floor main lobby of UPMC Montefiore in Oakland, as part of the World Asthma Day. Information about asthma and treatments will be available.

The closest Ms. Chamberlin came to an asthma crisis occurred several years ago when she was wheezing but no longer could move enough air even to produce a wheeze.

"I borrowed an inhaler, and never have left home without one since then," she said.


David Templeton: dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.


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