Some people suffering from the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) have to use steroid inhaler to keep their airways open. Now scientists from The University of British Columbia say that these drugs may have a previously unknown side effect. Analysis of 10 years’ worth of medical and pharmacy data for 39,676 adults showed that steroid inhalers may be protecting patients from lung cancer as well.
Researchers compared outcomes for people who took inhaled steroids versus those who used beta agonists. Beta agonists are another class of drugs used to treat COPD and work by relaxing lung muscles to make airways wider. This treatment was actually preferred for a long time, but steroid inhalers are an increasingly popular option, as they reduce the number of inflammatory cells called eosinophils in the lungs in more severe cases. Both beta agonists and steroids are effective treatments, but scientists wanted to check a hypothesis that steroid inhalers lower the possibility of developing lung cancer. And this study proved this to be the case.
Scientists found that those people with COPD who were using steroid inhalers were between 25 per cent and 30 per cent less likely to get lung cancer when compared to people who took other treatments. These finding are quite significant, because the research pool included almost a thousand people who later got lung cancer. COPD could be one of the factors increasing chances of getting an oncological disease in the lungs. In fact, it is a group of diseases, including emphysema and chronic bronchitis, that hamper airflow to the lungs and cause serious long-term disability and early death. Currently there is no cure for COPD, but different therapies can at least improve patients’ quality of life.
Scientists say that knowing that steroids lower the possibility of getting lung cancer is very important. Doctors will be able to identify people most likely to develop lung cancer and prescribe steroid inhalers as a preemptive measure. Don Sin, co-author of the study, said: “In Canada alone, more than 700,000 people have been diagnosed with COPD. These results highlight the importance of identifying which of those patients may be at the highest risk for lung cancer and may benefit from therapy with inhaled steroids”. These are great news, but scientists understand that more work remains to be done.
In the next stages of the research scientists will try to understand how exactly steroids are able to lower the chances of getting lung cancer. Knowing the mechanism is very important, because it could be employed in other cases as well. Now scientists will try to figure out which COPD patients would benefit the most from the steroid treatment.