Republish this article
1st May 2018

‘Asthma is a struggle – imagine carrying a 50kg stone around all day’

For people living with severe asthma, daily tasks can be a real challenge. Could ‘smart inhalers’ empower patients by providing information on what triggers asthma attacks?

‘Simple things like walking upstairs can be very difficult,’ says Toni Latimer-Simpson who has lived with asthma for 30 years. ‘If you can imagine carrying a 50kg stone around with you all the time you begin to understand asthma on a bad day when you can’t breathe properly.’

Toni was diagnosed with the condition in her teens. At first, doctors believed it was stress-induced asthma, brought on by a hectic exam schedule. ‘They told me it would pass but that didn’t happen,’ she recalls. ‘As I got older it has gotten worse and I’m now a severe asthmatic.’

This means taking medication to control asthma exacerbations – commonly known as ‘attacks’. Toni’s attacks can be triggered by changes in humidity, pollution, viral infections and flare-ups in her hay fever. ‘There are a range of environmental triggers but everybody is different,’ she says. ‘There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to managing asthma; there’s no average patient.’

Living with severe asthma can affect quality of life at work and beyond. Exacerbations can lead to missed days at the office, while surges in environmental pollen often prompt Toni to skip walking her beloved dog. ‘It can be hard for people at work to grasp the seriousness of asthma,’ she says. ‘It’s an invisible disease – if I’m sitting at my desk it looks like there’s nothing wrong but moving around can be challenging. I’m also sensitive to passive smoke and it can affect my breathing when those around me wear strong perfume.’

A sense of hope

Despite the daily burden of the disease, the millions of people living with asthma may now have reason for optimism. An EU-funded research project, myAirCoach, is using the latest in sensor technology to reinvent the trusty device that most asthmatics bring everywhere.

Toni is an active patient advocate and has worked with researchers and doctors on the prototype device, helping them ensure it is user-friendly and that it measures the things that matter to patients.

The prototype smart inhaler’s motion detectors activate the device as soon as a patient picks it up. It then measures the amount of medication inhaled and records the times that it is taken. This provides patients and doctors with invaluable insights on whether the inhaler is being used properly.

‘Some patients have poor technique – they are not inhaling at the same time as pressing their inhaler,’ explains Toni. ‘This new inhaler adapter monitors that and could help improve self-management.’

Doctors could use it to see whether patients are using their medication as prescribed and how their airways respond to various triggers. For patients, the information is readily accessible via a smartphone app. The app features a built-in questionnaire which encourages patients to record details of how they are feeling – giving further insights to discuss during doctor-patient consultations and provides information about indoor and outdoor air quality collected through an additional sensor device and online platforms.

‘A more personalised approach’

‘MyAirCoach helps clinicians to ensure patients adhere to their medicine and gives them a snapshot of our lives at a given time,’ explains Toni. ‘It also shows correlations between exacerbations and things like air quality and pollution.’

The outcome promises to lead to a more personalised approach to managing asthma, helping patients and doctors to identify triggers and fine-tune medication use.

Although not yet available on the market, the prototype device is being trialled in 90 patients in the UK and the Netherlands. If successful, it could be rolled out to a much larger patient population. This has the potential to provide even greater insights on how pollution, pollen levels and other environmental factors affect the quality of life of people living with asthma.

‘There is still work to do to refine the prototype but we’re hoping it could be rolled out in the years to come,’ says Toni. ‘It has real potential to improve the quality of life for people with asthma – giving us a greater sense of control.’