THE SEARCH FOR BETTER ways to deliver drug treatments is a critical issue in asthma, a chronic respiratory ailment that affects 15 million people in the U.S. and kills 5,000 each year. Although vastly improved asthma drugs have been introduced in recent years, they must still be breathed in through small devices called metered-dose inhalers (MDIs) that are notoriously tricky to use. Patients must carefully coordinate their breathing with the pumping action to ensure the right dosage--a technique that 70% of asthmatics fail to master.

Aradigm Corp. of Hayward, Calif., has just launched a smart alternative--an MDI with a built-in microprocessor. Its SmartMist device uses red and green indicator lights to guide patients' breathing and to automatically dispense the drug once it senses the desired flow rate is reached. The microchip also stores data for two to three months on the patient's dosage and inhalation patterns, which can be downloaded by physicians to monitor treatment.

Aradigm says that clinical studies show that asthma patients using the SmartMist device achieve correct dosing 90% of the time, compared with 45% with conventional MDIs.

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