Susie Mason was a 13 year old American girl with severe asthma. It was in the fifties. One day he asked his father something that would change the history of this disease. He wanted to know if his medicine could be aerosolized. If your father hadn’t been the president of a pharmaceutical company (Riker Laboratories), maybe he wouldn’t have been so interested. But he did. And so began the story of the asthma inhaler.
In 1956 he hired three scientists to fulfill his daughter’s wish. The result was the modern inhaler. The device is used worldwide – it delivers controlled doses of an asthma drug at the push of a button.
Cigarettes for asthma
Asthma is the most common non-infectious disease in children. It is estimated that more than 300 million of people suffering from this disease. Another method was used in Susie’s day. It was a glass bottle with a rubber spray bottle, similar to an antique perfume bottle. The bronchodilator drug was placed in this container. It reached the lungs, but the dose was not uniform. The atomizer was also very sensitive. It could be broken. There was another method that may seem ridiculous today: smoking cigarettes for asthma. It was used to administer substances that had Atropine, a substance used to treat asthma.
Therapeutic spray treatments have a long history stretching back to ancient Egypt. Yes, about 3,500 years ago. A study by the University of Exeter in the UK found this. Treatments for breathing problems have included the lungs by inhalation. “We know this was due to a papyrus scroll that was found next to a mummy,” explains Stephen Stein. He is a researcher and student of Charlie Thiel, a member of the team that invented the inhaler. «The therapy I have described mentions the use of crazy weed (Hyoscyamus niger). You inhaled the fumes from this plant when it burned.
And it turns out that this plant contains atropine. It is still used in certain products for today’s inhalers. “The goal of the Riker Laboratory was to develop a device with which more quantities of medicine could be transported faster. In successive experiments they tested strong gaseous propellants. Charlie Thiel remembers him in his 90s. They once sealed Inhalers tested by submerging them in a hot water source.
“All (200 inhalers) exploded at the same time. A jet of water covered the entire ceiling, ”says Thiel. The team continued to experiment with other formulations of the drug in sturdy Coca-Cola bottles. Thiel discovered a formula that worked. “When you mix drug particles in propellants, they tend to stick together on the wall. They don’t spread well, ”explains Stein.
Aerosol without alcohol
Thiel found the formula dispersed very well when he used Span 85 surfactant (sorbitan trioleate). Its particles were projected into small aerosols that could reach the lungs. ‘This finding made it possible that no ethanol or alcohol had to be added to the formula in order to convert it into an aerosol. This is how the story of the asthma inhaler began.
The process only took a year. “The patients loved it,” recalls Thiel. “It was so much more convenient for her!” Thiel was never interested in fame, but in the impact the product had on patients.
In a recording he made with his student, he remembers an encounter that still moves him today. In it he tells of an encounter with an Australian doctor, an elderly man with asthma, in 1995. «He gave me a bear hug. He said, “Charlie, if it wasn’t for your invention, I would be dead.” It just blew me away.