Richard Bond, associate professor of pharmacology at the University of Houston, has tested the idea of treating asthma symptoms with beta blockers (antagonists) instead of stimulants (agonists). Bond’s novel idea proved effective in studies conducted on mice and on humans.

Treating patients with medicine that actually worsens symptoms is called paradoxical pharmacology, and it has been successful in treating other conditions such as congestive heart failure and acne.

Bond’s tests showed that the beta-blockers initially made breathing problems worse, but continued use resulted in improved respiratory function after a 28-day period. Long-term use of beta-blockers allows air to flow more freely by helping the muscle lining the airways to relax and dilate.

In Bond’s first clinical trial on humans, mild asthmatics were treated for nine weeks with the beta blocker nadolol. Every subject tolerated the drug, and 80% of subjects saw a reduction in airway hyperresponsiveness.

“The principal that certain pharmacological compounds have different effects depending upon whether they are given for long or short periods has been demonstrated,” says Bond. “I do believe, though, that beta blockers hold promise in a maintenance or preventative regimen that could reduce the number or severity of attacks and improve a patient’s quality of life.”