The role of intrinsic efficacy in determining response to a beta2-agonist in acute severe asthma

Respir Med. 2007 May;101(5):1007-14. doi: 10.1016/j.rmed.2006.08.023. Epub 2006 Oct 17.


Background: Current guidelines recommend repeated doses of albuterol for the emergency treatment of acute asthma. However, approximately one-third of patients show little or no initial response to this partial beta(2)-agonist.

Methods: We conducted a randomized, double-blind, proof-of-concept study to investigate whether a full beta(2)-agonist, isoproterenol, offers a therapeutic advantage in adults presenting with acute severe asthma (FEV(1)<50%) who fail to respond to an initial treatment of the partial beta(2)-agonist, albuterol. Study subjects were randomized to receive a 2-h continuous nebulization of either albuterol (7.5mg/h) (n=10, mean FEV(1)=37% predicted) or isoproterenol (7.5mg/h) (n=9, mean FEV(1)=33% predicted). Respiratory symptoms, vital signs and pulmonary function measures were collected.

Results: Subjects from both treatment groups had similar baseline characteristics. The percent improvements from baseline FEV(1) at 60 and 120min were significantly higher in subjects receiving isoproterenol than those receiving albuterol (44 vs. 17% and 63 vs. 24%, respectively, P<0.05). The change in symptoms measured by the modified Borg score was also significantly greater in subjects receiving isoproterenol (P<0.01). Both treatments were well tolerated, though the mean increase in pulse rate at 60 and 120min (21 vs. 1 and 23 vs. 6beats/min, respectively, P<0.05) and the mean change in serum potassium at 120min (-0.52 vs. -0.07meq/L, P<0.05) from baseline were significantly greater in the isoproterenol group.

Conclusions: Our data suggest that in subjects presenting with acute severe asthma who fail to show an initial response to albuterol, the use of a beta(2)-agonist of higher intrinsic efficacy can be more effective in improving lung function and symptoms.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acute Disease
  • Adolescent
  • Adrenergic beta-Agonists / adverse effects
  • Adrenergic beta-Agonists / therapeutic use*
  • Adult
  • Albuterol / adverse effects
  • Albuterol / therapeutic use*
  • Asthma / drug therapy*
  • Asthma / physiopathology
  • Blood Pressure / drug effects
  • Bronchodilator Agents / adverse effects
  • Bronchodilator Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Double-Blind Method
  • Female
  • Forced Expiratory Volume / drug effects
  • Heart Rate / drug effects
  • Humans
  • Isoproterenol / adverse effects
  • Isoproterenol / therapeutic use*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Treatment Failure
  • Treatment Outcome


  • Adrenergic beta-Agonists
  • Bronchodilator Agents
  • Isoproterenol
  • Albuterol