BACKGROUND--The effect of adrenergic agonists in asthma depends on their net effect on microvascular leakage, mucosal oedema, vascular clearance of spasmogens, inhibition of cholinergic neurotransmission, and airway smooth muscle contractility. It has been postulated that adrenaline, by virtue of its alpha effects on the vasculature and cholinergic neurotransmission, may have additional useful properties in asthma compared with selective beta agonists such as salbutamol. METHODS--The airway effects of adrenaline (a non-selective adrenoreceptor agonist) were compared with the selective beta 2 agonist salbutamol. Their airway smooth muscle relaxant potencies and effect on histamine contraction in human bronchi in vitro were compared with their effects on airway calibre and histamine reactivity in asthmatic subjects in vivo. For the in vitro studies changes in tension were measured in response to these agents in thoracotomy specimens of human airways. In vivo the effects of adrenaline and salbutamol on airway calibre and histamine reactivity were measured in eight subjects with mild to moderate asthma in a randomised crossover study. RESULTS--Salbutamol and adrenaline had approximately equivalent airway smooth muscle relaxant potencies in vitro and bronchodilator potency in vivo. However, their effects on histamine induced contraction in vitro were significantly different from their effects on histamine reactivity in vivo. Salbutamol was less potent in vitro producing a mean (SE) 2.4 (0.15) doubling dose increase in the histamine EC20 and adrenaline a 5.2 (0.18) doubling dose increase (mean difference between salbutamol and adrenaline 2.8 doubling doses; 95% CI 1.1 to 4.5). Salbutamol had no effect on the maximal response to histamine whereas adrenaline reduced it by 54%. In contrast, salbutamol was more potent in vivo producing a mean (SE) increase in PD20 histamine of 1.84 (0.5) doubling doses whereas adrenaline was without effect increasing PD20 by only 0.06 (0.47) doubling doses (mean difference between adrenaline and salbutamol 1.78, 95% CI 0.26 to 3.29 doubling doses). CONCLUSIONS--These findings suggest that the alpha adrenergic airway effects of non-selective adrenoreceptor agonists such as adrenaline offer no additional protection against histamine-induced broncho-constriction in vivo than beta 2 selective drugs such as salbutamol, despite adrenaline providing greater protection against histamine-induced contraction in vitro. The differences between the effects of these agents in vitro and in vivo may be related to their opposing vascular effects in vivo.
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