An international team of researchers has found that a once-a-month, high-dose injection of a commonly used asthma drug is highly effective in treating teens and adults chronically afflicted with hives and severe, itchy rash. The drug, omalizumab, was tested on 323 people at 55 medical centers for whom standard antihistamine therapy failed to quell their underlying, allergy-like reaction, known as chronic idiopathic urticaria or chronic spontaneous urticaria.
"Physicians and patients may now have a fast, safe and well-tolerated treatment option to consider before prescribing even more antihistamines, which can be highly sedating," says Sarbjit (Romi) Saini, M.D., a Johns Hopkins allergist and immunologist, and study co-investigator. The research team's findings are scheduled to be published in The New England Journal of Medicine online Feb. 24, to coincide with their initial presentation at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology in San Antonio, Texas.
Participants in the study, which ran from 2009 to 2011, were mostly women and between the ages of 12 and 75. Each was randomly assigned to take one of three dosing regimens of omalizumab, or placebo, after which they were monitored through regular checkups for four months. Neither researchers nor participants were aware of what specific dose was being taken by which subjects during the study.
All study participants had chronic hives and rash for at least six months, with many having suffered from the condition for more than five years. All had continued to experience hives or a severe itchy rash for a full week while taking antihistamines.
"Patients suffering with this condition need more and better treatment options because chronic hives and rash are profoundly hard to treat and can be very debilitating," says Saini, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Saini, who has studied omalizumab since 2005, points out that fewer than half of those treated respond to traditional drug treatments with antihistamines.
Saini says the new study results offer substantial evidence that this first injection treatment option not only works, but does so more safely than other drugs, such as corticosteroids and the immunosuppressant cyclosporine, which carry risk of potentially severe and toxic side effects, including high blood pressure, bone thinning and even infection. By contrast, headache was the most severe side effect observed with omalizumab therapy. No study participants died or suffered anaphylactic shock, or had to withdraw because of any adverse effects or events.
According to Saini, chronic idiopathic urticaria affects some 3 million Americans, and may or may not involve swelling, with twice as many women as men suffering from these often socially isolating conditions. Saini says some patients experience such severe swelling of their eyes, hands, face, lips and throat that they have difficulty breathing. Some refuse to leave home, losing several days at a time away from work during flare-ups.