The veteran bloodthinner heparin has been found in a small UK trial to help improve breathing when inhaled by patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

COPD - an umbrella term used to describe progressive loss of lung function and airflow limitation due conditions including emphysema and bronchiolitis – is currently diagnosed in the UK every five minutes, but there is no cure not treatment to stop symptoms worsening.

New research led by the University of Portsmouth has shown that nebulised heparin made a clinically significant improvement (more than 10 percent) in lung function, measured by the amount of air forcibly exhaled from the lungs in one second after taking the deepest breath possible.

“Current treatments are limited and none conclusively modify the long-term decline in lung function, so to find that inhaled heparin is safe and provides clear benefits to people with moderate to severe COPD is excellent and encouraging for further clinical trials,” said study author Janis Shute, a Professor of Respiratory Pharmacology at the University of Portsmouth.

“We knew heparin was a drug with what could be described as a complex and diverse molecular scaffold, making it suitable for multiple health treatments, from wound healing to anti-inflammatories.

“Our laboratory studies further showed that heparin has unique mucus thinning properties, making it easier for patients to clear their airways. That we saw such improved patient outcomes in a short time may reflect its unique pharmacological profile – it is naturally able to perform many roles.”

The study’s investigators say more research is now needed to confirm the long-term safety of inhaled heparin in patients with COPD as well as its potential in cystic fibrosis.