An estimated 300 million people are affected by asthma worldwide and the burden is likely to rise substantially in the next few decades. Estimates of the prevalence of asthma range from 7% in France and Germany to 11% in the USA and 15-18% in the United Kingdom. Approximately 20% of these patients have severe asthma, of which 20% is inadequately controlled. Patients with inadequately controlled severe persistent asthma are at a particularly high risk of exacerbations, hospitalization and death, and often have severely impaired quality of life. Current management of asthma focuses on a stepwise approach tailored to disease severity. In addition to needing high-dose inhaled corticosteroids (ICS) and long-acting beta(2)-agonists (LABAs), patients with severe persistent asthma often require additional controller medications, such as anti-leukotrienes, oral LABAs, oral corticosteroids and/or anti-IgE therapy. There is currently little evidence on which to base treatment decisions in patients with inadequately controlled severe persistent asthma already treated with ICS and LABAs. The anti-IgE monoclonal antibody omalizumab is the most recent addition to the list of treatment options for these patients and has been shown to reduce exacerbations and emergency visits and improve lung function, symptom scores and quality of life in patients with difficult-to-treat asthma whose symptoms remain inadequately controlled despite receiving ICS and LABAs. Comparative trials are needed to determine the merits of different treatments and strategies for patients with inadequately controlled severe persistent asthma and to identify patients likely to benefit from new treatment options.