Each and every year, around 1 million people in the United States have to seek hospital care due to pneumonia, and of those, about 50,000 will die from the disease. However, new research is suggesting that two drugs that are used to treat asthma and allergies could prevent a form of pneumonia that can kill up to 40 percent of those who contract it. This is according to researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine.
Influenza pneumonia is the result of the flu infection spreading to the alveolar air sacs deep within the lungs. Thankfully, this normally doesn’t happen and the infection doesn’t progress that far into the lower respiratory tract. Sadly, when it does, it is often deadly.
“If infection is severe enough, and the immune response is potent enough, you get injury to these cells and are no longer able to get sufficient oxygen exchange,” explained UVA researcher Dr. Thomas J. Braciale. “As a result of the infection of the cells, you can develop lethal pneumonia and die.”
However, early administration of Accolate and Singulair, two asthma drugs, could prevent the infection of the alveolar cells deep in the lower respiratory tract, Braciale’s research suggests.
“The excitement of this is the possibility of someone coming to see the physician with influenza that looks a little more severe than usual and treating them with the drugs Singulair or Accolate and preventing them from getting severe pneumonia,” he said. “The fatality rate from influenza pneumonia can be pretty high, even with all modern techniques to support these patients. Up to 40 percent. So it’s a very serious problem when it occurs.”
Unlike bacterial pneumonia, influenza pneumonia is caused by a virus which can make it incredibly difficult to treat. It is for this reason that the notion of prevention is so appealing.
“When we look at pandemic strains of influenza that have high mortality rates, one of the best adaptations of those pandemic viruses is their ability to infect these alveolar epithelial cells,” researcher Amber Cardani explained. “It’s one of the hallmarks for certain strains that cause the lethality in these pandemics.”
If the virus does manage to spread deep into the lungs, severe damage can occur, especially to the alveolar air sacs. “It’s an important observation the field is coming to,” Cardani said. “We really need to limit the infection of these lower respiratory airways.”
“This was a totally unexpected observation,” Braciale said. “When I told multiple colleagues who are infectious disease or pulmonary physicians, they were absolutely flabbergasted.”
This accidental discovery is among the many “accidental discoveries” that have happened in medicine over thousands of years. And as a result of this pleasant accident, thousands of lives have the potential to be saved.