Patients with a rare form of asthma who took an experimental GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: GSK) drug experienced almost half the rate of attacks compared with those who took a placebo, according to a company-funded study.

Among 621 participants with severe asthma, after a year of treatment, the rate of attacks requiring oral corticosteroids, emergency room visits or hospitalizations was about half for those taking one of three monthly doses of the drug, called mepolizumab, compared with those on placebo, according to a study at the U.K.’s University Hospitals of Leicester NHS. The research was published Friday in the Lancet medical journal.

A doctor who led the study told Reuters the drug could be an important advance for patients who have not responded to conventional treatment.

“It seems to be a safe and effective treatment option for patients with eosinophilic asthma that is associated with frequent flare-ups, and may reduce the need for conventional treatment with oral corticosteroids that can have serious side effects including osteoporosis, high blood pressure and impaired growth in children,” Ian Pavord from Britain’s University Hospitals of Leicester National Health Service Trust said.

Pavord’s findings from the Phase IIb trial, which was funded by GSK, were published in The Lancet medical journal on Friday and will be presented at the European Respiratory Society annual congress next month

The treatment targets the 4 percent of asthma patients who experience attacks even after taking high doses of existing medicines.

Mepolizumab works by blocking the production of eosinophils, a type of blood cell that causes inflammation of lung airways.

“These effects are very promising and give hope to many patients for whom no effective drugs are available without significant adverse events,” Simone Hashimoto and Elisabeth Bel from the University of Amsterdam said in a comment accompanying the article.

While mepolizumab was effective in reducing exacerbations, it failed to produce improvements in symptoms or lung function, the study authors said. This observed dissociation between day- to-day symptoms and the risk of asthma attacks implies that different strategies are needed to manage the separate aspects of the disease, they said.

Three patients died during the study, though the deaths weren’t related to treatment, the researchers said.

Glaxo plans to continue studying the drug and will begin late-stage trials by the end of the year, the London-based drugmaker said in an e-mailed statement.

GSK operates its U.S. headquarters in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

(Bloomberg news contributed to this report.)

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