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* Onbrez Breezhaler plus Pfizer drug help COPD patients
* Combination results in better improvement in lung function
* Duo better than taking only Pfizer's Spiriva Handihaler
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ZURICH, Feb 10 (Reuters) - Patients with a deadly lung disease who took Novartis's NOVN.VX Onbrez Breezhaler as well as Pfizer's (PFE.N) Spiriva HandiHaler had better lung function than those taking only the Pfizer treatment, studies showed.
The news comes as a boost to Novartis's respiratory franchise and underscores the strength of the Swiss drugmaker's pipeline ahead of the imminent patent expiry of key drugs such as Diovan.
The results of the two late-stage studies in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) will be presented at the American Thoracic Society congress in May this year, Novartis said in a statement on Thursday.
The two classes of medicines have different modes of action, but both therapies are inhaled to provide bronchodilation, or increased airflow into the patient's lungs, Novartis said.
Last year, Novartis said a late-stage trial showed Onbrez reduced breathlessness more effectively than Spiriva, known generically as tiotropium, in COPD, while it was just as effective in improving lung function.[ID:nLDE6A20B0]
Spiriva and HandiHaler are registered trademarks of Boehringer Ingelheim Pharma GmbH & Co. KG.
Onbrez Breezhaler won European Union approval in COPD in 2009, lifting Novartis's ambitions in respiratory medicine, a field currently dominated by AstraZeneca (AZN.L), GlaxoSmithKline (GSK.L) and Pfizer.
COPD is a progressive, life-threatening respiratory disease commonly caused by cigarette smoke and other harmful fumes and particles, resulting in inflammation and narrowing of airways.
It affects 210 million people worldwide and is projected to be the third leading cause of death by 2020, Novartis said.
Until recently, Novartis was not on the radar as a major force in lung drugs, which are more difficult to make because of the inhaler devices needed.
The field is now becoming increasingly important to Novartis as it develops new drugs and cheap generic versions of older products such as Glaxo's Advair.
At 1202 GMT, Novartis shares were trading 0.6 percent lower, slightly worse than a lower European Healthcare sector .SXDP. (Reporting by Katie Reid; Editing by Will Waterman)