World renowned for his research on asthma, Dr. O’Byrne is able to use his personal insight to this chronic disease, as he had severe asthma as a child during a time when no effective treatment options were available. He remembers all the problems associated with asthma such as the symptoms, missing school and the impact on his family. He vividly recalls having his head over pots of boiling water, as his parents tried using water vapour to loosen the mucus in his lungs.

The Lung Association recruited Dr. O’Byrne as the lead investigator in the Asthma Control in Canada Survey. His work on this study reconfirmed that much hasn’t changed around asthma control in the past 15 to 20 years, although medications are immensely effective and continue to improve.

“We are facing an asthma paradox,” says Dr. O’Byrne. He describes how the first thing a physician prescribes is a short-acting reliever medication, which the patient then believes is the most effective, using it only when necessary. But that direction and thinking needs to change. Patients need to take their medication regularly, even without an immediate benefit. The focus must be on the long-term outcome – controlled asthma.

Dr. O’Byrne remembers a young woman who was admitted to the emergency room one day with seizures. She looked like she was dying in front of their eyes. She had acute severe asthma, but the problem wasn’t the need to change her medication – it was that she wasn’t using it regularly. From that point on she did. Dr. O’Byrne has followed her as an outpatient for 20 years now, even seeing her children at appointments. For him, this story demonstrates the value of taking asthma medications regularly.

Most rewarding for Dr. O’Byrne has been twofold. It is being part of understanding the mechanisms by which asthma develops, and the fact that hospitalization and emergency room visits for people with acute severe asthma has reduced by half since 2002 due to more effective treatment options. Donors have helped make that possible.

“Donors are absolutely crucial to the changes we’ve had for asthmatics. Any advances in the future are dependent on donors. Resources are needed to test new drugs and to develop the careers of young scientists. Without that, we lose people who could make an immense contribution.”