, Volume 27, Issue 4, pp 243-270
Date: 20 Nov 2012

Benefit-Risk Assessment of Long-Acting β2 -Agonists in Asthma

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The use of a regular long-acting β2-adrenoceptor agonists (β2-agonists; LABA) is now established in asthma guidelines as the preferred option for second-line controller therapy in addition to inhaled corticosteroids. This has been driven by data showing beneficial effects of LABAs on exacerbation rates, in turn suggesting a putative corticosteroid-sparing effect. As LABAs are devoid of any clinically meaningful anti-inflammatory activity in vivo, their effects on exacerbations are presumably due to a diurnal stabilising effect on airway smooth muscle.

LABAs have marked effects on symptoms and lung function, and this may make it difficult to assess anti-inflammatory control with inhaled corticosteroids when used in a combination inhaler such as fluticasone propionate/salmeterol or budesonide/formoterol. The use of fixed-dose combination inhalers is in many respects counter-intuitive to conventional teaching regarding flexible dosage titration with inhaled corticosteroids. It would therefore seem prudent first to gain optimal control of inflammation with inhaled corticosteroids before considering adding a LABA. Increasing the dosage of inhaled corticosteroids will have a relatively greater effect on exacerbations than on symptoms and lung function, whereas the converse applies when adding a LABA. Another option is to add a leukotriene receptor antagonist, which confers additional anti-inflammatory activity and is as effective on exacerbations as adding a LABA.

Despite in vitro and ex vivo data showing a ligand-independent effect of LABAs on glucocorticoid receptor activation, clinical data do not indicate any relevant synergy between LABAs and inhaled corticosteroids when used together in the same inhaler. In particular, there is no evidence of potentiation by LABAs of the in vivo anti-inflammatory activity of inhaled corticosteroids that would suggest any genuine corticosteroid-sparing activity. Nonetheless, the data support the additive effects of inhaled corticosteroids and LABAs when used together due to their separate effects on inflammation and smooth muscle, respectively.

Tolerance with LABAs is a predictable pharmacological phenomenon that occurs despite concomitant therapy with inhaled corticosteroids. Moreover, cross-tolerance also develops to short-acting β2-agonists used for protection against bronchoconstrictor stimuli as a result of LABA-induced down-regulation, desensitisation and prolonged occupancy of β2-adrenoceptors. The exact role of β2-adrenoceptor polymorphism in determining tolerance with LABAs requires further prospective clinical studies evaluating long-term effects on outcomes such as exacerbations in patients with relevant genotypes and haplotypes.

The next decade will provide challenging issues for clinicians with respect to defining further the role of LABAs as add-on controller therapy, particularly in evaluating the long-term effects of combination inhalers on inflammatory outcomes and airway remodelling.