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Asthma patients who start taking drugs to lower their cholesterol may find that their breathing problems worsen, according to the results of a small but provocative study.

The research was lead by Safa Nsouli, the director of the Danville Asthma and Allergy Clinic in California. He has been treating patients for more than two decades. In recent years, Dr. Nsouli has noticed the condition of some asthma patients seems to deteriorate soon after they are prescribed cholesterol medications, known as statins.

"I decided to do a study from baseline to see if statins were involved in the worsening of their asthma," he said in a telephone interview. Dr. Nsouli, and his research colleagues, recruited 40 volunteers who had mild but persistent asthma for at least five years.

At the start of the trial, half the patients began popping statins as part of their regular medications, while the other half remained statin-free.

After a year of observation, patients on statins had significantly more airway inflammation and breathing problems than the other patients, according to the study presented this week in Boston at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

"The research showed patients taking statins more frequently used their rescue medication, had increased nighttime awakenings and had increased asthma symptoms throughout the day," reported Dr. Nsouli.

He readily acknowledges that the results of his small trial will be controversial. In fact, at least one earlier study indicated statins have anti-inflammatory properties, which make asthma patients better not worse. Even so, he believes that statins could still lead to an imbalance of the immune system, producing a surge in a particular type of immune cell that aggravates the airways.

"It is of great important to have a large-scale study," he said, noting that millions of people take statin drugs and an untold number of them also have asthma. "These are among the most widely prescribed medications in history."