Asthma treatment guidelines recommend increasing corticosteroid dose to control symptoms and reduce exacerbations. This approach is potentially flawed because symptomatic asthma can occur without corticosteroid responsive type-2 (T2)-driven eosinophilic inflammation, and inappropriately high-dose corticosteroid treatment might have little therapeutic benefit with increased risk of side-effects. We compared a biomarker strategy to adjust corticosteroid dose using a composite score of T2 biomarkers (fractional exhaled nitric oxide [FENO], blood eosinophils, and serum periostin) with a standardised symptom–risk-based algorithm (control).
We did a single-blind, parallel group, randomised controlled trial in adults (18–80 years of age) with severe asthma (at treatment steps 4 and 5 of the Global Initiative for Asthma) and FENO of less than 45 parts per billion at 12 specialist severe asthma centres across England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Patients were randomly assigned (4:1) to either the biomarker strategy group or the control group by an online electronic case-report form, in blocks of ten, stratified by asthma control and use of rescue systemic steroids in the previous year. Patients were masked to study group allocation throughout the entirety of the study. Patients attended clinic every 8 weeks, with treatment adjustment following automated treatment-group-specific algorithms: those in the biomarker strategy group received a default advisory to maintain treatment and those in the control group had their treatment adjusted according to the steps indicated by the trial algorithm. The primary outcome was the proportion of patients with corticosteroid dose reduction at week 48, in the intention-to-treat (ITT) population. Secondary outcomes were inhaled corticosteroid (ICS) dose at the end of the study; cumulative dose of ICS during the study; proportion of patients on maintenance oral corticosteroids (OCS) at study end; rate of protocol-defined severe exacerbations per patient year; time to first severe exacerbation; number of hospital admissions for asthma; changes in lung function, Asthma Control Questionnaire-7 score, Asthma Quality of Life Questionnaire score, and T2 biomarkers from baseline to week 48; and whether patients declined to progress to OCS. A secondary aim of our study was to establish the proportion of patients with severe asthma in whom T2 biomarkers remained low when corticosteroid therapy was decreased to a minimum ICS dose. This study is registered with ClinicalTrials.gov, NCT02717689 and has been completed.
Patients were recruited from Jan 8, 2016, to July 12, 2018. Of 549 patients assessed, 301 patients were included in the ITT population and were randomly assigned to the biomarker strategy group (n=240) or to the control group (n=61). 28·4% of patients in the biomarker strategy group were on a lower corticosteroid dose at week 48 compared with 18·5% of patients in the control group (adjusted odds ratio [aOR] 1·71 [95% CI 0·80–3·63]; p=0·17). In the per-protocol (PP) population (n=121), a significantly greater proportion of patients were on a lower corticosteroid dose at week 48 in the biomarker strategy group (30·7% of patients) compared with the control group (5·0% of patients; aOR 11·48 [95% CI 1·35–97·83]; p=0·026). Patient choice to not follow treatment advice was the principle reason for loss to PP analysis. There was no difference in secondary outcomes between study groups and no loss of asthma control among patients in the biomarker strategy group who reduced their corticosteroid dose.
Biomarker-based corticosteroid adjustment did not result in a greater proportion of patients reducing corticosteroid dose versus control. Understanding the reasons for patients not following treatment advice in both treatment strategies is an important area for future research. The prevalence of T2 biomarker-low severe asthma was low.
This study was funded, in part, by the Medical Research Council UK.