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Do asthma and COPD exist? Experts call for a new approach to patient management

1 February 2016  •  Author: Victoria White

Defining a patient’s symptoms using the historical diagnostic labels of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is an outdated approach to understanding an individual’s condition, according to experts from ERS and ELF.

asthma and copd

The shift towards this personalised approach to medical treatment could represent a huge change in the way healthcare is delivered in Europe, in particular by tailoring treatment strategies to help empower patients to self-manage their own condition.

In a new perspective article, Professor Alvar Agusti of the Respiratory Institute at the University of Barcelona, Barcelona and colleagues call for a new approach to patient management, which moves away from categorising patients using the broad disease terms of asthma and COPD and towards a more personalised approach to management that identifies ‘treatable traits’ in each patient.

Hospitalisation rates for COPD are continuing to increase and a majority of asthma patients live with significant symptoms, impairing their quality of life. While the labels of asthma and COPD are valuable for patients who display stereotypical symptoms, the researchers say there are a growing number of patients who do not fit this category, including patients with adult-onset asthma, smoking asthmatics, or patients with the so-called asthma–COPD overlap syndrome.

‘A label-free precision medicine approach’

The researchers explain that in the past 30 years, new technologies have developed, providing clinicians with a range of tools to allow them to observe a patient and define that patient’s condition. Previously, understanding a patient’s condition relied on analysis of symptoms and signs, such as lung function measurements and airway hyper-responsiveness, but now clinicians can access information about a range of other underlying complex biological traits, including cellular and molecular traits. This could include measures such as CT scanning, cellular and molecular markers taken from blood samples, sputum and exhaled air and microbiome anaylsis.

Professor Agusti commented: “We propose a label-free precision medicine approach based on treatable traits that categorise the clinical and biological complexity of airway disease. The approach we are suggesting would radicalise healthcare and have significant implications for the organisation of a healthcare system. By recognising the clinical and biological complexity of a disease, we can use causal mechanistic disease pathways to adopt a more precise approach, which is hopefully more effective at managing patients with these conditions.” 

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