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Molecular effects of inhaled glucocorticoid therapy in asthma

Peter J Barnes, DM, DSc, FRCP, FRS
Section Editors
Bruce S Bochner, MD
Robert A Wood, MD
Deputy Editor
Helen Hollingsworth, MD


Inhaled glucocorticoids (ie, glucocorticosteroids, corticosteroids, steroids) suppress airway inflammation by activating anti-inflammatory genes, switching off inflammatory gene expression, and inhibiting inflammatory cells. In addition, they enhance beta 2 adrenergic signaling by increasing beta 2-receptor expression and function. The net effect is control of the symptoms and signs of asthma in most patients.

The molecular effects of inhaled glucocorticoids in asthmatic airways are discussed in this topic review. In addition, the molecular determinants of glucocorticoid sensitivity are reviewed. The pharmacology of glucocorticoids, the role of inhaled glucocorticoids in the management of asthma, and the potential adverse effects of inhaled glucocorticoids are presented separately. (See "Pharmacologic use of glucocorticoids" and "Determinants of glucocorticoid dosing" and "An overview of asthma management" and "Asthma in children younger than 12 years: Initiating therapy and monitoring control" and "Mechanisms and clinical implications of glucocorticoid resistance in asthma" and "Major side effects of inhaled glucocorticoids".)


Discoveries related to gene transcription have improved our understanding of the mechanisms by which inhaled glucocorticoids suppress airway inflammation [1,2]. These mechanisms include anti-inflammatory gene activation and switching off inflammatory gene expression, which alter the expression of inflammatory and anti-inflammatory enzymes, receptors, cytokines, adhesion molecules, and chemokines. The net effect is decreased inflammatory cell recruitment, survival, and accumulation.

Anti-inflammatory gene activation — There are two types of glucocorticoid receptors (GR), GR alpha and GR beta. Glucocorticoid action is facilitated by GR alpha, but potentially inhibited by GR beta.

GR alpha – Glucocorticoids passively diffuse across the cell membrane and bind to GR alpha in the cytoplasm [2]. The glucocorticoid/GR alpha complex (ie, activated GR) rapidly translocates into the nucleus. There, the activated GR form dimers, which bind to glucocorticoid response elements (GREs) within the promoter of glucocorticoid-responsive genes. There are positive and negative GREs.

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Literature review current through: Oct 2017. | This topic last updated: May 04, 2017.
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